Advisers Urge U.S. Lab to Continue Quest for God Particle

The only particle physics lab in the United States should get another chance to beat its European rival to the discovery of the most coveted particle in high-energy physics—even if it means delaying other projects at the lab, an independent committee of researchers says. But that recommendation doesn’t sit well with Pier Oddone, the director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. Oddone might be forced to choose among his “children” if the lab doesn’t receive any more money to continue running its 25-year-old atom smasher, the Tevatron collider, through 2014 instead of turning it off as planned in September 2011.

 The extra running time should enable Fermilab researchers to glimpse the long sought Higgs boson—the lynchpin to physicists’ explanation of how all particles get their mass—before colleagues at the European particle physics lab, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, can nail it with the newer, more powerful Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Had the recommendation been to stop, the Tevatron would surely shut down next year.

The case for continuing with the Tevatron was strong enough to outweigh the disruption to other projects, says Ian Shipsey, an experimental physicist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and one of 15 members of the Fermilab Physics Advisory Committee. “When you’ve defined as one of your goals to find the Higgs and you’re getting close, it doesn’t make sense to stop,” Shipsey says. The recommendation represents a consensus among committee members, he says. It will undoubtedly be met with cheers by the physicists working on the two experiments fed by the Tevatron, known as CDF and D0.

But it gets a decidedly cautious reception from Oddone. “While the ... recommendation celebrates the success and potential of the Tevatron, it is very problematic for us at Fermilab,” Oddone writes in a statement to lab personnel released at the same time as the recommendation. “I fully understand—and we all need to understand—that if we proceed with it, Fermilab will bear the brunt of the severe funding squeeze that results.” Oddone will confer with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which funds the lab, on how to proceed.

Plainly put, the problem is money. The committee found the case for extending the Tevatron’s run so compelling that it urged the lab to do so even if its $410 million annual budget from DOE does not grow. But running the Tevatron for three more years would cost about $150 million, and scrounging up the dough could play havoc with several projects under development to replace the Tevatron. For example, Fermilab is already building a $260 million experiment call NOνA that will study particles called neutrinos. If the Tevatron continues to run, the committee acknowledges, it will likely take 18 months longer to get NOνA up and running at full capacity.

“In the end, our conclusion was that a slowing of the rest of the program was acceptable given the opportunity to run the Tevatron for three more years,” Shipsey says. “That had to be discussed at great length before we all felt comfortable with that.”

The window of opportunity for the Tevatron arises because of delays at the LHC. The 27-kilometer-long collider suffered a catastrophic breakdown shortly after researchers first circulated particles through it in 2008 when the electrical connection between two of the LHC’s massive magnets melted. Researchers began taking data this past March, and the machine is currently running at half energy to protect the unreliable electrical connections. CERN officials will shut down the machine for 15 months starting in 2012 to rework all those connections, giving the Tevatron one last shot at glory.