The United States’ largest atom smasher is smashing atoms no more. I’m sure atoms are very happy about this, but most of the scientific community is disappointed. In many ways, shutting down the Tevatron Particle Accelerator is like ending the space shuttle program.
The Tevatron had been in service for nearly thirty years and was responsible for many important discoveries in particle physics. Most people never even heard of it and have no idea why this matters, but without particle physics (a.k.a. quantum mechanics) we wouldn’t have wireless communications, plastic, or most modern drugs. We wouldn’t even understand DNA if we didn’t know how atoms and the particles inside them work.
The Tevatron cost millions of dollars to build and millions more to operate. The Department of Energy says they could not secure funding from the federal government to keep it running.
Before the Tevatron closed, it was tantalizingly close to either discovering the Higgs Boson or proving it does not exist—which would change everything we know about physics. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe is also close. And another particle accelerator in Europe, run by the same people who run the LHC, recently found evidence that one particle, the neutrino, can travel faster than light—which would also change everything we know about physics.
As an American, I wish the United States still had a large particle accelerator of its own so we could participate in these experiments, but at the same time I’m too excited to worry about patriotism. One way or another, atom smashers are about to change physics, and when they do all kinds of new technologies will be possible. The world of tomorrow is coming.