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It’s Worth Doing Now

Breakthroughs in the physics of superconductivity, the transmission of electricity without any loss, have come with breathtaking speed in recent months. As a result, some scientists are wondering aloud whether it is wise to proceed with another piece of physics: the superconducting supercollider, the $6-billion atom smasher that President Reagan endorsed earlier this year. As its name implies, the superconducting supercollider depends on superconductivity, and, according to this argument, if major developments are about to occur in superconductivity, the United States should wait until the developments are in hand before building this enormous new machine.

To back up: The supercollider will whip subatomic protons around its 53-mile ring thousands of times a second, smashing them into each other so that physicists can examine what occurs and add to their knowledge of the nature of matter. But keeping the protons in the ring is no mean trick. About 10,000 magnets are required to do it, and they work by superconductivity.

Until recently, superconductivity was achievable only at temperatures near absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit), which is difficult and costly to maintain. But, in the last year or so, physicists in laboratories around the world have been outdoing each other in developing new ceramic materials that are superconducting at temperatures as high as -283 degrees Fahrenheit--still cold, to be sure, but nowhere near as cold as used to be required. Scientists are confident that they can increase the temperature still more, raising the prospect of a revolution in society’s use of electricity.

It would also mean that a radical and much more efficient (and cheaper) design of the supercollider could be achieved, and it is on this basis that some physicists are urging a delay, at least until it is determined how far the superconductivity improvements will go.

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But this argument ignores the fact that even if superconductivity is achievable at room temperature, years of work remain to be done in learning how to make practical devices from laboratory materials. Everything done so far has been done on a very small scale, and it will be frightfully difficult to scale up demonstration projects into a superconducting supercollider. At the very least, enormous technological problems will have to be solved. The present superconducting magnets took more than two decades to develop after their feasibility was proved in the laboratory.

The supercollider represents an enormous investment of faith and money in the future of American physics, and Reagan acted correctly and wisely in backing this project. It should go ahead with the current technology of superconducting magnets, which is both known and proved. Present plans call for its completion by 1996, and there is no guarantee that the next generation of superconducting magnets will even be off the drawing board by then.

The supercollider is worth doing, and should be pursued now. If and when better magnets are available, they could be used in the next machine to join mankind’s eternal quest to know.


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