Fermilab, the Tevatron, and Linux


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jan 11, 2011 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

It was 1998 and I was attending a Comdex event in Chicago. Comdex was one of the largest computer trade shows on earth, and for a while they held two events a year, a Fall event always in Las Vegas, and a Spring event typically in some other large city.

That year “Spring Comdex” was in Chicago and my company, Digital Equipment Corporation was there along with a motley crew of companies pushing this concept of Free Software. One of the Comdex organizers, Sonny Saslaw, had started a small exhibit area of Comdex pushing Linux and we were attracting our own set of attendees. One of the main companies involved with Comdex in Chicago was this young upstart called “Red Hat”.

At that event was a man named Dan Yocum, and he asked me and some of the people from Red Hat (including Donnie Barnes, Erik Troan and Marc Ewing, the three founders of Red Hat) to go out to Fermilab to “give a talk to the people”. I jumped at the chance and encouraged the others to go.

We got in some cars and drove out to Batavia, Illinois.

Fermilab is not much to see above ground. In fact, it looks like a big field with a sort of modern-looking building at one end. Not very impressive. In fact the most impressive thing above ground was the small herd of bison they had there.

It is what is under that ground that impresses....one of the world's largest and most powerful proton-antiproton colliders, the Tevatron accelerator.

We gave our talk to a room filled with people, and after the talk a man named “G.P.” Yeh asked if we “would like a tour”. Again, I jumped at the chance, and it was then that Donnie Barnes said, “maddog, why are you acting so goofy? What is this place?” I explained to Donnie that Fermilab was exploring “where we came from, how we got here, and where we are going.” Then we started the tour of the Tevatron, which quickly impressed even Donnie.

At that time Fermilab was trying to find out what the sixth (also known as the “top”) quark looked like. They had seen the “top quark” once or twice, but needed much more data to figure out how it really looked. I quipped to “G. P.” (who turned out to be one of their top physicists) that it probably looked like Mickey Mouse, but we both agreed that would be bad, since Walt Disney might claim a copyright on all the elements in the universe.....

The story of that visit, the reason why Fermilab really liked Linux, and the subsequent visit to Fermilab by Linus the following year has already been told. Fermilab went on to fully investigate the “top quark”, in some part due to the efforts of the Free Software community. Of course Fermilab has given back to the Free Software community, as have all of the National Labs. The supercomputers needed for filtering and analyzing the data from these experiments has helped to forward the work done for high performance computing (a.k.a. "Beowulf computers). While the World Wide Web was officially created at CERN, its inspiration was to tie together the research being done by scientists around the world, like the ones at Fermilab.

Now Fermilab is investigating Higgs boson, thought to be part of the riddle to what creates “mass”. There are two massive colliders in the world working on this. One is Europe's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN and the other is the Tevatron. While the LHC is larger, the Tevatron is thought by many to be “ahead in the race”, and although the Tevatron was originally slated to close in 2011, an expert panel recommended extending Tevatron's life until 2014, allowing it to continue gathering data to find the elusive Higgs.

Why all of this interest in Higgs? An understanding of what “mass” is and how it works might explain how, in a fraction of an instant, matter from the “big bang” managed to be thrown billions of miles into space, and how space and time itself were created. An understanding of how mass works might allow us to affect “mass” (and therefore “weight”) in ways that we can not predict at this moment. Can we perhaps create a field of space free of “mass”, to allow transportation of objects at a reduced use of energy? Today that might seem as impossible as sending voice through space seemed only 200 years ago.

In addition, the hunt for the Higgs is not the only use of these accelerators. They are also useful in the hunt for new elements used in the creation of new materials, cancer research and other areas of research.

Recently the Tevatron's extension of life was snuffed out in a “difficult US budget situation” to save an extra 35 million dollars a year needed to run the collider, and currently the Tevatron will cease operations in September 2011.

The closure of the Tevatron is not the end of the world. There can be arguments that the money used to run the accelerator can be used for other things. The physicists who are working on the project vow to use the data already collected, and the data they will collect up to the point that the collider is turned off to continue “hunting” for the Higgs. I feel certain that the LHC's physicists will share their data with the Fermilab physicists. Sharing data and idea is what intelligent people do.

Certainly there can be an argument that the money put into the Tevatron could be used to expand the LHC into an even larger collider. But greater size is not always the issue, and having “one big one” sometimes creates problems in scheduling experiments as well as exposures to man-made and natural disasters. Physicists sometimes redesign their experiments to use a smaller, less expensive collider that happens to be more available. And good physicists like (as do most other people) to go “where the action is”. If the exciting work is being done overseas, that is where they go.

I head the captains of industry and leaders of our government in the United States crying about the state of our school children and how we are producing fewer and fewer mathematically and scientifically trained people. Installations like the Tevatron inspire these young people to study these sciences. While the United States Congress is trying to cut back on our expenses, I will point out that ONE B1-B bomber costs over 282 million dollars to build. In addition, if the Tevatron “crashes”, it can simply be restarted again. Put another way, the money needed to keep the Tevatron going until 2014 and allow them a good chance to find the Higgs amounts to less than thirty cents for every person in the United States.

I, for one, would like to see Tevatron finish its mission.

Carpe Diem


  • I appreciate what Dan said, and the sad part is that the Tevatron does not need a "billionaire"...

    ...it just needs a good millionaire or two.

    Seriously, it was missing 35 million from its budget, and we spend a lot more than that every day on really pitiful junk.

  • What the Tevatron needs

    What the Tevatron needs is for a generous billionaire or organization to hear about this and invest in the future of science in the US by donating the money to keep the Tevatron running. And I would guess that this would be tax deductible effectively making it half-price to them. Anyone out there that would do this? If this happen and the Tevatron finds the Higgs it would be one of the all-time biggest discoveries in the history of science.
  • Tevatron

    I agree with Dan Yocum that the end of Tevatron is not the end of Fermilab. However I would like to stress that the Tevatron mission is not complete and the only reason we stop Tevatron now is an absence of funds. It is bad for High Energy Physics and for Fermilab. The laboratory still does not have budget for this fiscal year and, in present political climate, expects its severe reduction. The outlook does not look great.
    As for the education it looks even less promising and in difference to the science its problems cannot be solved by money only.
  • "It will be a great day...

    ... when schools get all the money they need, and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."

    Maddog, thank you for you kind words and positive activism.

    It should be noted that even though the Tevatron is shutting down, Fermilab as a whole will continue to produce great science. There are several other projects currently be undertaken here and each one is still very interesting and inspiring to young people. Here's a short list of what's going on:

    Neutrinos are neutral particles that switch among three flavors: electron, muon and tau. Scientists have observed electron neutrinos from the sun changing to muon and tau neutrinos. They have seen muon neutrinos produced by cosmic rays oscillate to tau neutrinos. With the NOvA (http://www-nova.fnal.gov/) experiment, scientists are searching for a third type of neutrino oscillation: muon-to-electron.

    Mu2e (http://mu2e.fnal.gov/public/gen/index.shtml) is an approved experiment that will search for the conversion of a muon into an electron. Researchers have observed quarks converting from one type, or flavor, to another. They have also observed neutrinos oscillating from one flavor to another. This leads them to wonder if members of the charged lepton family, the electron, muon and tau particles, have a similar ability to convert to one another. Such a process, called charged lepton flavor violation, would represent unambiguous evidence of new physics.

    The Dark Energy Survey, DES (http://www.darkenergysurvey.org/), will use a state-of-the-art, wide-field CCD imager and an existing telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile to study the nature of dark energy. The DES will measure the density of dark energy and dark matter and study the expansion of the universe by observing galaxy clusters; the distortion of light from distant galaxies, known as weak gravitational lensing; galaxy angular clustering; and supernovae.

    But, wait! There's more! Visit the "Works in Progress" page at http://www.fnal.gov/pub/sci...experiments/works-in-progress/ to see a more complete list of what's in store for future generations of High Energy Physicist.

    Dan Yocum
  • Wow

    I will never cease to be amazed at the things we have "shared".

    I spend the summer of '94 at Fermilab, working with an amazing scientist, Donna Naples, who know teaches at Pittsburg. I truly enjoyed my short stay at Fermilab, where I got to play with cosmic rays and SGI computers happy
  • Well Done Maddog

    Well done Maddog. It is good to see people trying to spread the word about the important of science. I also appreciate you pointing out that things like the Tevatron and most government funded scientific research isn't what is really causing debt crises, yet it always seems to be the area being cut. I don't usually comment on articles, but I thought this one was so well written that it was worth letting you know. happy
comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe to our Linux Newsletters
Find Linux and Open Source Jobs
Subscribe to our ADMIN Newsletters

Support Our Work

Linux Magazine content is made possible with support from readers like you. Please consider contributing when you’ve found an article to be beneficial.

Learn More