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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Scientists are trying to create particles that haven't been seen since a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. And they took a big step towards that goal today in 17-mile-long loop buried deep under Switzerland and France.

Unidentified Woman: Three, two, one, go.

(Soundbite of cheers)

SIEGEL: Early this morning, the first beam of protons raced around the large Hadron Collider. Once the collider becomes fully operational, it will be the most powerful machine of its kind.

And for American physicists, it is a bittersweet moment. The United States could have had a machine that was even more impressive. That one was the Superconducting Supercollider, and it was under construction when Congress killed the project over a decade ago.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has the story.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Superconducting Supercollider was going to reveal the secrets of the universe in a small Texas town called Waxahachie. This staggering machine was going to hurl subatomic particles down a 54-mile tunnel deep beneath farmland, and smash the particles together with astonishing force.

A scientist named Roy Schwitters with the University of Texas at Austin was supposed to make it all happen.

Professor ROY SCHWITTERS (Physicist, University of Texas at Austin): I remember sitting around with our key staff. We had about a half dozen of us that we were in a big, empty kind of warehouse-like building with a few telephones, says, okay, now what do we do? You know, build a supercollider.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: By 1993, four years later, they had a staff of about 2,000 people and had spent $2 billion. They had constructed huge laboratory buildings and drilled over 14 miles of tunnel. Then Congress was looking to save money and abruptly killed the project.

This would-be wonder of science has had one big moment of fame, as a film set for Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie. But, other than that, it's pretty much just sat there abandoned. The county recently sold it for a paltry $6 million to an investment group that hope to turn it into a secure data storage center. But no one's been interested.

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

Prof. SCHWITTERS: I have to tell you, that was pretty depressing. The inside of this great magnet laboratory was filled with cartons of Styrofoam coffee cups.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Outside, the access shafts down to the tunnel were filled with dirt, like a grave.

Prof. SCHWITTERS: And there was sort of, you know, the usual, like, tumbleweed or something blowing across. This was sort of a bad dream.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, Europe is firing up the Large Hadron Collider. It's three times less powerful than the 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 this new collider, his field would be basically dead.

Mr. JEROME FRIEDMAN (Physicist, MIT): We like to see the science advance anywhere in the world, and the fact that it's being - that the Europeans have taken on the responsibility of building this accelerator is a very joyful thing.

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

Mr. FRIEDMAN: 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, 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Support for particle physics has been declining in this country, while it's been growing in Europe. Pier Oddone is director of the Department of Energy's Fermilab near Chicago, the nation's premier site for this type of research. Fermilab's own particle collider is expected to be shut down soon, in part because the new one in Europe will make it obsolete.

Dr. PIER ODDONE (Director, Fermilab): 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, and a large fraction of that community will be now going to Europe.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says his lab does have a remote center that will let American scientists monitor work at the new collider in Switzerland. Depending on what the collider discovers, physicists are eventually going to want to construct another big machine to take the next step forward. Oddone hasn't given up hope that this next one could be built here.

Dr. ODDONE: I'm reasonably optimistic that with the excitement that will come up with the discoveries from 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?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Whether Congress would support that remains to be seen. But one official in Waxahachie, Texas had this advice for the next American town that wants to take on the secrets of the universe: Go for it. But first, try to get all the money up front.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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