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Fermilab says it will still be relevant, even as LHC begins work
By Susan Sarkauskas | Daily Herald Staff

Joel Butler of Fermilab speaks during a news conference Tuesday in Batavia discussing the lab's role with the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Butler is the operations program manager for the United States' role in the compact-muon solenoid experiment, one of six to be done at the collider.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

Brandon Galbraith is among a group of Fermilab employees in Batavia who work in a remote operations center for the Large Hadron Collider, which is near Geneva, Switzerland.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 3/3/2010 12:01 AM

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When the Large Hadron Collider does the largest particle-smashing experiment ever conducted on Earth in a few weeks, it will seem to leave Fermilab in its dust.

The new 17-mile European collider is expected, on or around March 20, to send protons crashing into each other so fast that they create 7 teraelectron volts of energy - more than seven times the TeVs the Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab, until recently the world's most powerful, has produced.

But the 26-year-old, 4-mile Tevatron still has a few good years left - and data produced by several experiments conducted is very valuable for years to come, scientists and lab officials said Tuesday.

"It (the Tevatron) is still humming along," said Judy Jackson, communications director, explaining it likely won't be shut down before the end of 2011.

The lab is also building a superconducting test accelerator for research into superconducting radio-frequency work.

Plus, scientists are researching new experiments to study other aspects of particle physics besides the energy and cosmic frontiers that have been front-page science news the last several decades.

One of those could be the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment, shining neutrino particles underground to detectors 800 miles away in Leads, S.D., to determine whether neutrinos saved some matter from annihilation at the start of the universe. They are still working on bringing Project X, a proton accelerator, to fruition.

And then there's the possibility of constructing a muon collider - an oval-shaped accelerator that would fit on the Fermilab site in Batavia. A team is researching whether the collider would work.

The scientists reiterated how the study of particle physics is an international business, noting that people from 60 countries designed and built the LHC experiment. Fermilab is part of a worldwide network providing computing power and storage for the data generated at LHC. There are 50 people working at the Large Hadron Collider Physics Center in Wilson Hall. You don't have to be at CERN in France and Switzerland to do experiments with the LHC, said Ian Shipsey, the LHC Physics Center coordinator at Fermilab, noting it's not like the scientists have to be 570 feet underground in the accelerator tunnels, which span the border of France and Switzerland. They work at computers on the surface. "What's the difference between a few hundred feet and a few thousand miles between friends?" Shipsey said.

The Tevatron has properties the LHC doesn't, including its ability to collide protons and antiprotons; the LHC only does protons. And one of the experiments running on it, D-Zero, has been going for 25 years. So Fermilab scientists have an advantage in that they understand the detector technology really well, and that helps when they are interpreting data. It will take several years for scientists using the LHC to get up to speed in that regard.

The Tevatron is still the place to go for people studying the top quark, which was discovered there 15 years ago. It takes years to interpret the data, said Stefan Soldner-Rembold, the spokesman for D-Zero. "That's one of the reasons the Tevatron is still competitive in this game."

In other words, there's plenty of questions to be answered, from many different angles, about the founding of the universe - and plenty of science to be done.

"Rumors of Fermilab's imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated," Jackson said.