Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ta-Ta to the Tevatron

The Tevatron is a four-mile-long particle accelerator at Fermilab in Batavia, IL. Physicists use particle accelerators to study subatomic particles by bringing them to high speeds and smashing them into each other. By studying the results, they can deduce (and sometimes prove) the existence of other particles, such as the top quark (a quark is the smallest known unit of matter; it takes three of them to make a proton) and learn what the universe was like at the time of the Big Bang. I was lucky enough to take a field trip to Fermilab when I was in high school, although we spent more time on the bus than on the grounds. (We were coming from southern Wisconsin.) I do remember seeing all the computers and the equipment, which was mostly very long rectangles.

Yesterday I read this article in the NY Times saying that despite efforts from scientists to obtain funding, the Tevatron will be shut down permanently this September. (Fermilab will remain open and run other projects.) This isn't a surprise, as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is much larger and more powerful, and efforts to build another particle accelerator in Texas came to nothing. What is disappointing is that our country is canceling some of the big science projects while Europe and Asia are catching up to us in science. What does it mean for our country in the long run if we don't run large-scale experiments like the Tevatron? Will that affect our ability to perform basic research and train new scientists? Will the general public lose interest in science and science fiction?

If you were going to propose one big research project for our country, what would it be? Would you suggest something that had many real-world applications, or would you try to find something that was also inspirational?

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