Ssc, R.I.P – Superconducting Super Collider – 1993 – the Year in Science
David H. Freedman
THE GOOD NEWS FOR SUPERCONDUCTING SUPERCOLLIDER FANS IN 1993 WAS THAT CONGRESS VOTED TO PROTECT THE $640 MILLION THAT HAD BEEN EARMARKED FOR THE SSC IN THIS FISCAL YEAR. THE bad news was that the money is to be spent ripping the project apart. “The SSC as we know it is dead,” said Louisiana senator J. Bennett Johnston, a longtime SSC supporter, after the fatal vote in the House of Representatives. “It cannot be revived.”
The SSC was arguably the most ambitious and certainly one of the most costly pure-science projects ever undertaken. The 54-mile underground tunnel circling Waxahachie, Texas–now one-quarter complete–was to hold 10,000 superconducting magnets capable of accelerating two small clouds of protons toward each other at nearly the speed of light. The energy of the resulting collision would have rivaled the energy of the universe immediately after the Big Bang and created a shower of exotic elementary particles. Physicists expected that one of those particles would be the Higgs boson–which, if it exists, would be the key to understanding the origin of mass. No existing accelerator packs enough of a punch to make a Higgs, and most physicists had pinned their hopes on the SSC.
News of the SSC’s death left much of the physics community stunned and disheartened–and not just the 150 physicists who were directly employed by the project but the thousands who work on particle physics at universities. Many of these physicists believe that only the SSC would have been able to provide the experimental data they needed to move forward. “It’s tragic,” says Lisa Randall, a particle physics theorist at MIT. “We were just at the point at which we were hoping to answer some of the fundamental questions that have been on our agenda for years, and now it’s possible we’ll never have those answers.”
Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, currently on the drawing board, will produce about a third of the energy of the SSC; some put its chances of finding the Higgs at one in three. Thus unless the European project gets lucky, physicists might have to give up–for the time being, at least–on unraveling this outstanding mystery: Why does matter have mass?
Some say most of the collateral damage from the SSC’s demise will be felt by the upcoming generation of would-be physicists. “A lot of bright people are drawn into studying physics by the dream of discovering the fundamental laws of nature, even if most of them ultimately end up working on something else,” says Steven Giddings, a theorist who currently works on black holes at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “If when I was in college I had gotten the message that our society lacks the will to pursue these fundamental questions anymore, I might well have gone to law school.”
Still, not all physicists and certainly not all scientists mourn the SSC. Some had come to resent the mammoth project’s drain on overall science funds, and some even questioned its chances of success. Some wondered whether the results SSC was after were really that much more important than research in solid-state physics, nuclear physics, astrophysics, or geophysics–projects with much lower price tags. The $640 million that will be spent on the SSC in this fiscal year, for instance, is more than the National Science Foundation expects to spend this year on all the Earth sciences and astronomy combined.
Critics of the project even included some particle physicists. “There is a group of people who felt the SSC was too big and too dependent on brute force,” says Richard Blankenbecler, head of the theory group at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. “But at the time it was designed, there weren’t any competing ideas, and people were just too impatient to get at the data.” Blankenbecler adds that a new linear collider under development at SLAC “may well end up a smaller, cheaper way of answering some of the same questions. People in this field are clever. They will come up with new ideas and bounce back.”
But to its supporters, the death of the SSC was a shattering event. Some of them saw the project’s demise as a gloomy portent for the future of science in general, even though funding for basic research in this country is at an all-time high. Giddings points out that the cost of the SSC would have been about $4 for every person in the United States over each of the next eight years. “That’s less than the cost of a movie, and a lot less than the cost of a subscription to DISCOVER,” he says. “How much would you pay to know what the world is made of?”
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