U.S. Physicists Recall Brush With Supercollider Fame

An access tunnel under construction for the Superconducting Super Collider. i i

Access tunnels had been excavated and construction was well under way on the Superconducting Super Collider when Congress killed the project back in 1993. AP Photo/Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory hide caption

itoggle caption AP Photo/Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory
An access tunnel under construction for the Superconducting Super Collider.

Access tunnels had been excavated and construction was well under way on the Superconducting Super Collider when Congress killed the project back in 1993.

AP Photo/Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory

Q&A: The Big Bang Machine

Physicists are throwing the switch on what is arguably the most powerful and most complex science experiment ever conducted.

  

Find out what exactly they're looking for.

  

Big Bang Machine Goes Live

The first test beams of protons have been sent through tunnels in a multibillion-dollar Large Hadron Collider. Later this month, the machine will begin smashing subatomic particles together so that scientists can search through the wreckage for clues about the early universe.

  

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For some American scientists, the official start-up of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland is a bittersweet moment.

Once it becomes fully operational, this new collider will be the most powerful machine of its kind in the world. It's designed to smash protons together to reveal the basic building blocks that make up the universe.

But not too long ago, the United States could have had a machine that was even more impressive. The Superconducting Super Collider was actually under construction when Congress killed the project back in 1993, during a period of budget cutbacks.

The Superconducting Super Collider, located near the small town of Waxahachie, Texas, was going to hurl subatomic particles down a 54-mile tunnel deep beneath farmland and smash the particles together with astonishing force.

Roy Schwitters, a physicist at the University of Texas at Austin who served as director of the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory, says that when the project got cancelled, it had a staff of about 2,000 people and had already spent $2 billion. Workers had constructed huge buildings and drilled over 14 miles of tunnel.

Schwitters returned to the abandoned site not too long ago to look around. He said it was just like a ghost town.

"I have to tell you, that was pretty depressing," he says. He recalls that the inside of a big magnet laboratory was empty, except for cartons of Styrofoam coffee cups.

"That's not a pretty picture."

Outside, the access shafts down to the tunnel were filled with dirt, like a grave, and the dirt had kind of sunk down.

"And there was sort of, you know, the usual tumbleweed or something blowing across," Schwitters says. "This was sort of a bad dream."

This would-be wonder of science did have one big moment of fame in 1999 — as a film set for a Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie. But other than that, it's pretty much just sat there, abandoned.

Over the years, various plans for the site have been proposed. People have considered using it as a jail or an anti-terrorism training facility. Two years ago, Ellis County, Texas, sold the site for a paltry $6.5 million to an investment group that hoped to turn it into a secure data storage center.

But no one's been interested.

Now Europe is firing up the Large Hadron Collider, which is three times less powerful than the Superconducting Super Collider would have been — but American physicists are still grateful to have it.

Jerome Friedman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at MIT, says without the new collider, his field would be basically dead.

"We like to see the science advance anywhere in the world," Friedman says, "and the fact that the Europeans have taken on the responsibility of building this accelerator is a very joyful thing."

The United States did contribute hundreds of millions of dollars and critical hardware to the project in Europe. And American scientists will work there. But Friedman can't help but regret the fact that all of the students, technology and attention are shifting to Europe. He's still somewhat haunted by the ghost of the Waxahachie supercollider.

"We had been a nation of being pioneering and doing things that other people wouldn't do. And this was a case where we retreated from that," says Friedman. "And that was a very sad thing. It was not only sad for the field, but it was sad for the country. Because it said something about what we valued."

Support for particle physics has been declining in this country while it's been growing in Europe, according to Pier Oddone, director of the Department of Energy's Fermilab, also known as the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Chicago — the nation's premier site for this type of research.

He says Fermilab's budget is currently just a third of the budget of CERN, the European lab that is home to the new Large Hadron Collider.

"Historically, we've been quite even. But that this point, the support in the U. S. has eroded, and the support in Europe has grown," he says. "As you may imagine, if you have a third of the budget, it's a difficult thing to compete in the long term."

Fermilab's own particle collider, the Tevatron, is expected to be shut down soon, in part because the new one in Europe will make it obsolete, says Oddone.

"It is clearly a sad thing to see it end. Fermilab has been a center that has attracted a very large international community that comes to the U.S. to do their physics," says Oddone, "and a large fraction of that community will be now going to Europe."

He says Fermilab does have a center that will let American scientists monitor experiments going on at the new collider in Switzerland, so they can do work without having to go overseas.

Depending on what the Large Hadron Collider discovers, physicists are eventually going to want to construct another big machine to take the next step forward. And Oddone hasn't given up hope that this next one could be built in the U.S.

"I'm reasonably optimistic that, with the excitement that will come up with the discoveries on the LHC, that the public here will say, 'Gee, how come we are not taking the lead, we ought to be doing these things, what's the matter with us?,'" Oddone says.

Whether Congress would support construction of the world's next great physics machine remains to be seen.

But one Waxahachie town official, N.B. "Buck" Jordan, says that after his experience with the ill-fated supercollider, he has this advice for the next American town that might jump at the chance to take on the secrets of the universe: "If there was ever anything else like this that came along," Jordan says, "Get the money up front."

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