Last week, an international consortium of physicists, engineers and other technicians at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced that they have found the Higgs Boson – or at least something very much appearing to be the Higgs – after one of the largest and most difficult searches in history. Placing a capstone on the Standard Model of particle physics, the significance of the achievement rivals that of the Manhattan Project and Apollo.
It’s too bad that we could have made this discovery in the United States ten years ago.
In 1991, fully seven years before groundbreaking at CERN, the United States began construction of its own enormous particle smasher in Texas. Called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), this particle accelerator was similar in design to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but much larger. The LHC’s main ring is 27 km in circumference; the SSC main ring would have been 87 km in circumference. In particle physics, bigger is always better.
The craziest part? Sitting abandoned in a ghost facility in Texas is 24 km of circular tunnel. We sank nearly as much tunnel into the earth as the entire LHC… and then sank the project!
At the LHC in CERN, particles are smashed together with a collision energy of 14 trillion electronvolts (TeV). The SSC could have reached 40 TeV, nearly three times as much. Greater collision energies yield more discoveries. Again, bigger is always better.
Had we actually finished the project, Americans likely would have made this discovery somewhere between 2001 and 2005. Additionally, we would have reaped tremendous economic benefits from the thousands of high-paying jobs for scientists, engineers, and construction workers, not to mention all the benefits for the smaller industries that these workers would have supported.
So, what happened?
In 1993, Congress cut all funding for the project. Undoubtedly, some of the blame for this lies with the scientists and managers of the project. The SSC was over budget and behind schedule (just like the James Webb Space Telescope). This is a problem that plagues many, perhaps most, scientific endeavors. Damning reports emerged about the project wasting millions of dollars. Bureaucracy exploded and scientific and accounting changes caused unsavory cost increases.
The original budget for the project was $4.4 billion. By the time of cancellation, the budget had nearly tripled to roughly $12 billion. The completion date was moved from 1999 to 2003 at the behest of the Clinton administration, to reduce yearly cost (at the expense of higher total cost).
There was a second factor as well. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly was no longer dominant as a world power. Much of our country’s drive to compete with other nations fell away dramatically.
The argument of fighting to be the best in the world at science lost some gravity (no pun intended) when there was no longer another clear national contender for the position. The hawkish government officials of the Reagan era gave way to Clinton era officials of different sensibilities. To some, the project was anachronistic.
So, in a mood of budget reduction and reduced Cold War fever, we axed the project. The result? Thousands of highly skilled workers went to France and Switzerland to conduct the most advanced project in the world over there. And not only did we lose jobs, we may also have given away a Nobel Prize.
If there is a lesson to be learned, let it be this: Our budget choices have scientific consequences.