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Devotion to the Tevatron October 2, 2011

Posted by dorigo in physics.
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(This post first appeared on my current site, www.science20.com/quantum_diaries_survivor . Please note that I post on this site quite rarely. Please visit me on the science20 site for updates on experimental particle physics and more!).

I’m nostalgic tonight. The reason ? The Tevatron has finally stopped running, for good.

It’s strange to find out one can mourn the shutdown of a synchrotron just as the passing away of an old friend, but that’s more or less how I feel like tonight. And I am not even among the ones who can claim to have been around for the full duration of the machine’s lifetime, like Giorgio Chiarelli – as Giorgio recounted here, he was there in the CDF control room when the first proton-antiproton beams collided the first time, in 1985.

I started working in CDF in June 1992. In the course of these 19 years I have learned all I know about particle physics, and I have met a large number of extraordinary people. Not only ones from CDF: the Fermi laboratories are of course a place where you interact with the “competitors” from the other experiment, DZERO -you work elbow to elbow, go to the same parties, seminars, and events, and you share joys and frustrations as the machine which feeds data to both experiments outperforms or suffers technical stops. Plus of course technicians, machinists, administrative staff: a number of people who simply did their job there, but who all shared the pride of doing their part for the success of this remarkable human adventure.

As Gary Taubes explains in juicy details in his book “Nobel Dreams” (1987), it was Carlo Rubbia in the late seventies who first launched the idea of a proton-antiproton collider at Fermilab. Back then, he got severely beaten up by the lab director -he had a bad record of changing horses mid-race and keeping proposing new projects. But Rubbia was right: the technology was just getting mature enough for such a machine to be built. In the course of six months Rubbia learned all there was to know, and then some, about making antiprotons; and then CERN accepted his project. The W and Z bosons were discovered by the SppS experiments in 1983. By then, the Tevatron was already in place at Fermilab. Too late to challenge the discovery of the vector bosons, but timely to provide a precise measurement of their mass, and to search for the sixth quark, the top.

The history of the Tevatron and its many successes will no doubt be told by people who have participated more actively and deeply in it than myself, so there is no point for me to try and do that here tonight. I only choose to tell a personal story here. One where I take the part of the moron, incidentally, but that’s beside the point (and not that uncommon after all).

I was in charge as Scientific Coordinator in the CDF control room a few years ago, leading a crew of physicists in the task of taking data as smoothly as possible during my seven-night shift. It was not the first time on that job, but I was eager to see data coming in -you get that kind of feeling when you sit during long nights waiting for something to happen. For a few times in a row during the past nights the sequence of injection of beams in the Tevatron had been started, and then aborted, for a string of reasons which were not immediately clear, and in some cases possibly caused by human errors. In a moment of scorn, I let go with a sarcastic sentence in the CDF E-log: “Injecting protons again. Let’s see where they screw up this time”.

Now I should explain that, since English is not my native language, I have often trouble gauging how strong words are in a sentence I say or write. To me it sounded a bit like saying “let’s see where they find the trouble this time”, or not too much worse than that. But it was by far too careless.

So I was not intending to insult anybody’s competence, but the sentence was indeed inflamatory, plus of course unfit to an E-log. Worse than that, and not considered by me at the moment, the CDF E-log was readable by anybody, Main Control Room Machinists included. Heck, you too could read it in real time.

The following morning I was not even reproached too much for my stupid sentence, but from the feedback I got in a number of ways, that one time I learned quite something. I learned that out there, reading the CDF E-log, there were not just us in the control room, plus the other people on shift in the Main Control Room and in the DZERO CR, plus a handful of people on call for any problem the hardware or software could be facing. There was a whole community of colleagues who read the E-log as frequently as an addicted user reads his or her Facebook homepage. People who cared for the machine, for the data taking, for the success of the experiment. People who had devoted their life to make this as good Science as it could possible be. People who were ready to provide help to solve problems even when they were not on call, and who woke up in the middle of the night just to see whether a new store was in. All of these people had felt outraged by the lack of respect I had shown to the Tevatron machinists.

I have always said I appreciate men and women who regardless how serious their job is do not neglect to take it with a grain of irony; and yet I saw a flaw in that line of reasoning, confronted with the devotion of so many brilliant minds to the common good -the advancement of Science at the hands of the machine they had contributed building and operating for many years.

So the Tevatron has been turned off today, and many people are sad, each in their own private way. To many, the Tevatron was their life. To all, it was the machine that created the opportunity of getting together to work in a friendly, stimulating environment, growing professionally and intellectually. It was a fascinating machine, which deserves a whole chapter in a history of particle physics. 28 years old, with its glitchs and hiccups, by now old and patched up, the Tevatron was still incredibly performant until the very end. Farewell, Tevatron!

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