BATAVIA, Ill. — University physicist Myron Campbell was one of hundreds of scientists who watched a close friend of almost 28 years get put to rest on Friday.
The companion was the Tevatron particle accelerator, located at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in this Chicago suburb and the victim of a familiar culprit — budget cuts. In January, the U.S. Department of Energy denied a $100 million funding request that would have allowed the particle accelerator to continue operating for an additional three years.
The accelerator used superconducting magnets to propel protons at speeds close to the speed of light and is notable for discovering the top quark — a crucial component of physical matter — and aiding in the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology. Before its closure, there were about 2,300 scientists working at the Tevatron, and University of Michigan scientists like Campbell have been one of the most represented groups of physicists working on the project over the years.
Campbell, currently the associate dean for natural sciences and a professor of physics at the University, started working at the Tevatron in the early 1980s while doing postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago. Campbell said his early work was primarily focused on building electronics that would record the collisions between protons and anti-protons in the Tevatron, which was officially launched on Oct. 13, 1983 when Campbell himself turned the machine on for the first time.
Campbell said the Collision Detector at Fermilab only recorded 24 collisions in the Tevatron when it was first turned on 28 years ago. As of Friday, there were more than 10 million recorded collisions per second.
Campbell’s experiments at Fermilab focused on developing pattern recognition technologies that mimic human neuron networks. Campbell said this technology can now be found in many gadgets we use today.
“Almost any kind of pattern recognition algorithms now uses neuron-network algorithms like cameras that can recognize faces that use these algorithms,” he said.
In 1995, Campbell and his team of Michigan physicists contributed to what is arguably the Tevatron’s greatest accomplishment — the discovery of the top quark. This subatomic particle had eluded particle physicists around the world for years and was the final element to be discovered of the standard model — a popular theory of particle physics.
Campbell said this was by far the fondest memory he has of working with the collider.
“It was great to be there for the moment when someone says ‘eureka,’ ” he said.
Monica Tecchio, a research scientist in the University’s Department of Physics, started working with Campbell at Fermilab shortly after the discovery of the top quark in 1995. Tecchio said her initial work included upgrading the electronics of the Tevatron, but after a few years shifted to analysis of top quark data to confirm its existence.
Between 1995 and 1999, Tecchio regularly commuted to Fermilab by plane and recalled one particularly busy time when she was traveling to Illinois once a week for an entire year. Tecchio said she and Campbell would race to see who could get to Fermilab the fastest.
“We had an open bet who could commute from home to Fermilab in the shortest time,” Tecchio said. “I think he won. He made it down there once in less than three hours but just because he had a taxi driver bring him to the airport. I had to drive myself. We would brag about how many frequent flyer miles we had.”
After spending years researching at Fermilab, Tecchio and Campbell moved on to other experiments around the world. Campbell spent a few years working on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and then transitioned to the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex. A few years ago, Campbell recruited Tecchio to join him at J-PARC.
Though Tecchio and Campbell have spent many years away from Fermilab, they each said they believe they could be working there again soon with the announcement of the lab’s new experiment — Project X.
According to Campbell, Project X is a particle collider that focuses on high-intensity collisions rather than the high-energy collisions that the Tevatron worked on. Project X would be based around two experiments that Campbell is currently studying in Japan.
Tecchio said she hopes to work on Project X for professional and practical reasons.
“It would be a great match for me not only because it’s closer to home, but also because I’ve already gained so much experience in that field of physics,” she said.
However, before scientists at Fermilab can start building the detectors and devices for Project X, the experiment must be approved and funded by Congress. Despite the funding cut to the Tevatron, Piermaria Oddone, the laboratory director of Fermilab, said he is confident funding for Project X will be approved because he believes other countries will donate money to make the project more affordable.
“We’re hoping the world will help us build it … If they do, the (American) agencies won’t be able to say no,” he said in a press conference at Fermilab on Friday.
But even if Project X is approved, Tecchio said the shutdown of the Tevatron will leave a large void in American high-energy particle physics.
“Eventually if no new (high-energy) colliders experiments are started in the United States, there will naturally be a shrink in the number of people working in particle physics,” she said.
Many American particle physicists have already switched to astrophysics due to a decrease in funding for high-energy accelerators in the United States, according to Tecchio.
“Astrophysics nowadays feels a lot like what high-energy physics felt like 30 years ago …” she said. “ The same kind of convergence of theoretical understanding and technical detectors that happened in particle physics 30 years ago is now happening in astrophysics.”
Though many are hopeful Project X will move forward, emotions were running high on Friday among the hundreds of physicists who worked on the Tevatron. A number of researchers began crying in the moments leading up to its shutdown.
However, Campbell said he has mixed emotions about the shutdown of the collider.
“When an experiment has run its course and served its purpose, it’s time to shut it down and move on,” he said. “There is a tinge of sadness, but there’s also a sense of moving on.”
The main reason why the Tevatron is closing is because better opportunities for high-energy particle research exist elsewhere now, Campbell said.
Oddone acknowledged that in the wake of the closure, there will be a decrease in the nearly 2,300 scientists researching at Fermilab. However, if Project X is approved, the experiments involving fundamental particles like neutrinos — tiny particles that were recently measured as traveling faster than the speed of light — would restore the amount of research to Tevatron-era levels.
“We’re going to be the premiere lab for studying rare processes,” Oddone said.