So long Tevatron, I hardly knew you

Today marked the cessation of operations of the Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab after 28 years of operation as it has been superseded by the LHC at CERN. It was a synchrotron that accelerated protons and antiprotons in opposing directions and produced collisions with energies up to 1 TeV, hence its name. My understanding of the technicalities is still only that of an interested layman’s, but that’s what I’m going to school for. The Tevatron made numerous discoveries, probably the most famous being the “filling out the table” discovery of the top quark in 1995.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the LHC is operating at half-power for the next while and is expected to ramp up to full power in 2014, producing 7 TeV collisions. There are proposals to upgrade it after 2018, increasing its luminosity which will increase the number of particles per unit area per unit time. Beyond that there’s the obvious next step of building an even bigger collider, the Very Large Hadron Collider, a larger linear collider, or in using more exotic particles like muons in accelerators to do more with less.

I remember when I was in junior high (early 2000s) hearing about how the LHC was going to revolutionize particle physics and making a conscious decision that I’d ignore the particle physics of the day so that I wouldn’t have things I’d need to forget later. In retrospect such a position was laughable, in large part because I had a mistaken idea about how science works. At the time I thought the whole thing was about explaining the qualitative aspects about how the universe works, but now I have a more Feynman-esque view where the principle goal of science is to calculate things. It’s all about prediction. When you make that cognitive shift, suddenly one of the chief aims becomes devising models that allow for the greatest computational power in the most intuitive way that will give the highest accuracy when compared to experiment. What not to include or what to ignore becomes just as important as what to include while still maintaining some desired level of accuracy.

In this regard, the Standard Model of particle physics is one of the best theories that science has produced, since it agrees with experiment to many decimal places. Now, I still have only soft knowledge about the whole thing (three quarks make protons and neutrons, electrons are leptons, they exchange photons… Just don’t ask me for numbers) but I’ll be taking my university’s undergrad class in particle physics in two years time and learn about all the elegant mathematics I read about back in junior high.

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