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See Inside October 2011

Waiting for the Higgs

Even as the last protons spin through the most successful particle accelerator in history, physicists hope to conjure one final triumph



Courtesy of Fermilab

Underneath a relict patch of illinois prairie, complete with a small herd of grazing buffalo, protons and antiprotons whiz along in opposite paths around a four-mile-long tunnel. And every second, hundreds of thousands of them slam together in a burst of obscure particles. It’s another day at the Tevatron, a particle accelerator embedded in the verdant grounds of the 6,800-acre Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory complex in Batavia, about 50 miles due west of Chicago. There have been many days like this one, some routine, some spectacular; of the 17 fundamental particles that physicists believe constitute all the ordinary matter and energy in the universe, three were discovered here. But there won’t be many more such days. By October 1 the power supplies for more than 1,000 liquid-helium-cooled superconducting magnets will have been turned off forever, the last feeble stream of particles absorbed by a metal target, ending the 28-year run of what was until recently the most powerful particle accelerator in the world.

For several hundred physicists here who have spent nearly two decades searching for a hypothetical particle called the Higgs boson, the closure means ceding the hunt—and possible Nobel glory—to their archrival, the Large Hadron Collider, a newer, more powerful accelerator at CERN on the Swiss-French border. With its 17-mile circumference and higher energies, the LHC has displaced the Tevatron as the world’s premier particle physics research instrument, a position it will retain well into the next decade.

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