"The U.S. used to dream big. Big cities. Big ideas. Big science," Motherboard's Alex Pasternack begins A Death on the Frontier. The documentary is essentially a eulogy for the world's second most powerful particle collider (after the Large Hadron Collider) and the golden age of science in America. Launched in 1983, the Tevatron discovered the top quark subatomic particle, found evidence supporting the existence of the Higgs boson, and even helped measure distant earthquakes. In the 20-minute documentary, Motherboard travels to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) outside Chicago to find out why the Tevatron was "on death watch, the victim not just of obsolescence by its more powerful European successor, but of sharp budget cuts from Washington." The documentary drifts into surreal territory at the "frontier," featuring buffalo, a rap video, Star Wars fan films, and (of course) an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson (don't miss the 1992 "Accelerating Science" Fermilab promo video that starts around 2:25). Yet the film is still an entirely serious and informative look into what's at stake for high-energy physics research in the U.S.
When the accelerator is shut down in September, 2011 -- by pushing an actual big red button -- scientists mourn; one pours a 40 ounce beer over the site and another addresses the machine, "you may have been the world's second most powerful proton-antiproton accelerator, but you'll always be first in our hearts." In a post for Motherboard, Pasternak reflects:
From some angles, there was nothing unusual about the demise of the Tevatron: science proceeds by iteration, improvement and progress, and ever since the days of giant telescopes, bold, costly experiments have collided head-on with economic constraints. But from some other angles, amidst a general austerity for basic science research in America and around the world, the amazing machine looked like a science-fiction relic from another age. Physics continues to explore, and even if the Higgs has been spotted, there’s a lot left to learn. But where’s that search going to happen? Does it matter? Ask the scientists at the lab on the old American frontier.
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