Nobel laureate Leon Lederman looked over a crowd of several hundred scientists and industrialists attending a recent symposium in New Orleans and quipped: “We just want to understand how the universe works. After we have done that, we will go away.”
What Lederman and other high-energy physicists want is for the federal government to spend more than $6 billion on the largest scientific instrument ever built, a giant race track that they hope will smash subatomic particles into smaller particles than anyone has ever detected before.
Because physicists believe the machine, called the superconducting super collider, could simulate the beginning of time, opening a window on the moment the universe began.
The machine will hurl two beams of protons--atomic nuclei--in opposite directions around a 53-mile race track. The violent collision of protons traveling at nearly the speed of light will create subatomic particles, many of which have not existed in nature since the beginning of time.
Competition for Funds
The proposal comes at a time of staggering federal deficits and increased concerns about housing for the poor, skyrocketing health costs and other everyday matters. Yet it enjoys widespread support in Congress among a broad spectrum of elected officials, many of whom are quick to admit they do not understand what the super collider is all about.
“I’ve become a buff,” said Rep. Jimmy Hayes (D-La.), who represents an impoverished district along the Gulf Coast.
That kind of attitude reveals the political acumen of scientists and government officials who have managed to build a broad base of support for the super collider. Many elected officials came aboard initially because they thought the project might end up in their state, bringing with it thousands of jobs and the prestige that one of the world’s premiere scientific research projects is bound to garner. In all, 35 sites were proposed.
But since last January, when the U.S. Department of Energy picked a site near Dallas, many thought congressional support would decline quickly after officials realized they were not going to land the project for their areas. Unquestionably, some support has waned, but the project is still very much alive.
More than $100 million has been spent on research and design of the instrument, and if the current budget request is approved, construction will begin sometime next year. It is scheduled for completion in 1995, but that depends on continued support by Congress.
“I never thought Louisiana would be a finalist,” Hayes said of his state’s bid for the project. “Unless they want to put it under water,” he added in reference to the swamplands that cover so much of Louisiana.
At the ‘Cutting Edge’
Yet he remains committed because “the super collider is a symbol,” he said in an interview. “This is the cutting edge of technology. If our country is not the symbol of scientific achievement, we will forfeit that to Europe or anyone else who is willing to make the investment.”
Particle physicists--who tend to regard their role in life as virtually a religious calling--tend to wax eloquent, minus the politics, when discussing their field.
“High-energy physics is the ultimate extension of man’s curiosity about what things are made of and how they work,” said Harvard University Prof. Roy F. Schwitters, who is to serve as director of the super collider project.
Many others, however, believe the price may simply be too high.
“I keep asking, ‘Where is the money going to come from?’ ” Rep. Mike Espy (D-Miss.) told the New Orleans symposium.
Espy, a member of the House Budget Committee, repeatedly told the symposium that if the super collider is built, the cost will come out of the hide of many other projects, and he offered little hope that it will be funded.
But he glanced at representatives of the Texas organization who helped win the project for their state and noted:
“But you have a couple of 800-pound gorillas in your corner, and one of them is named George Bush.”
Even Physicists Are Split
The cost of building the super collider has split the scientific community because many fear it will drain funds away from other projects. Even physicists are not united in support of the project.
“There is a fundamental question here,” said Cornell University physicist James Krumhansl, president of the American Physical Society. “How do you assign priorities.”
Krumhansl said the cost of the super collider would double the nation’s budget for research in physics, but the same amount of money could be used to fund the research of about 5,000 physicists a year in smaller grants. Many of those would be for research in such areas as superconductivity, which could pay immediate dividends, while the payoff from the super collider “will be essentially zero” for many years.
While declaring that the super collider “violates the commandment that thou shalt not stick your finger in some other guy’s goodie pie,” Krumhansl suggested that plans to build the super collider now--with so many other research projects begging for money--may not be prudent.
“It’s (the super collider project) reasonable,” he said carefully, “in its time and place.”
Although the super collider was conceived under the Ronald Reagan Administration, President Bush is believed to be a supporter. But when he was going over the text of his recent budget address a funny thing happened on the way to a joint session of Congress. Although the prepared text specifically pushed for the super collider, the President dropped the reference from his speech.
Some believe the President decided that if he mentioned it, the super collider would become a high-profile target for its critics--and there are many--and he decided at the last minute to take a quieter path. That does not mean the Bush Administration is backing away from the project, according to Robert Hunter, director of the Office of Energy Research in the U.S. Department of Energy, which hopes to build the super collider. Hunter said in an interview that he fully expects the super collider to be built.
“President Bush is not backing away from the super collider,” said presidential science adviser William R. Graham. “He very strongly supports it.”
The betting among insiders is that the project may get the $250 million called for in the current budget proposal, which includes $160 million to begin the first stage of construction, but “year two will be much more difficult,” as Hayes put it. Texas is putting up $1 billion toward the project.
The schedule calls for the funding to jump to $392 million for fiscal 1991 and $494 million by 1992.
The total price tag has been pegged at $5.9 billion by the Department of Energy, but many believe that figure is actually far below what the super collider will ultimately cost.
“Many of my colleagues believe we are looking at an $8-billion project,” said Rep. Carl D. Pursell (R-Mich.), a staunch supporter of the super collider despite the fact that his state lost out early in the competition.
That is a lot of money for a project that is difficult to understand and may never directly improve the lives of the people who are asked to pay the bill.
Since by its very nature the super collider will be designed to probe the unknown, no one knows what--if any--practical rewards the giant machine will yield. Its predecessors, like the world’s largest collider now operating, the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, have led to applications in fields ranging from medicine to Star Wars, but no one knew if any practical good would come from the Tevatron before it was built.
“I’m frequently asked, if those results were unpredicted, what are the unpredicted results we can expect from the super collider,” said Lederman, who is the director of Fermilab.
Many of the spinoffs from earlier colliders resulted from the development of new technologies required to build them, but the super collider relies on existing technology and may not lead to new breakthroughs. It will not be all that different from the Tevatron at Fermilab. But it will be a lot bigger, and thus far more powerful.
Not An Atom Smasher
The super collider is frequently referred to as an atom smasher, although that is not technically correct. The collider will produce head-on collisions of protons. Thus it is a particle accelerator, not an atom smasher, because it will not smash atoms.
It will, however, tear protons to shreds.
A magnetic field created by 10,000 magnets made of 60 million feet of superconducting copper cable will accelerate two beams of protons to nearly the speed of light in opposite directions around the 53-mile underground race track. The beams will cross six times, producing about 100 million collisions per second in each of six “interaction halls.” The energy in each of those collisions will approach 40 trillion electron volts, 20 times greater than the highest energies available in any other collider in the world today.
Each time two protons collide, the amount of energy transferred will be equivalent to the energy produced at that instant by all the power plants on Earth, concentrated in a region 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a proton.
Each collision will smash the protons, but it will not simply break them into pieces. At that energy, the collisions will create some new particles that have not existed since the birth of the universe. The process is similar to two trucks crashing into each other head-on and producing wreckage that includes a sports car, a motorcycle, two bicycles and a wide assortment of vehicles that no one had ever seen before.
Project’s Only Purpose
And that, essentially, is all that the largest pure science project ever envisaged will be designed to do.
But to high-energy physicists, it will be a thing of great beauty.
In a time so brief that it is to a second what a second is to 100,000 times the age of the universe, scientists will be able to observe what the universe was like at “the moment of creation,” as it is so often referred to in technical literature. At that time, particle physicists like to point out, there was only particle physics.
The effort to re-create the beginning of time is considered an arrogant goal by some scientists, but to others is pure science, a quest for nothing more than understanding.
It is a quest that some scientists fear the nation may be forfeiting to others.
Later this year, Fermilab’s Tevatron will no longer be the world’s most powerful collider. That mantle will go instead to the European high-energy physics center near Geneva, called Cern.
The only way to regain that lead is to build the super collider, a project so costly that it has pitted scientist against scientist because of fears that it would drain funds away from less exotic but equally promising endeavors.
“This project all along has not had an easy road,” the Energy Department’s Hunter said.
“It’s asking for a substantial amount of money,” he added. “But it is the right answer for how to maintain our leadership in this field.” Lederman, who admitted he is concerned that the super collider could siphon off funds from his own laboratory, has said repeatedly that the most important spinoff from the super collider could well be something that is very hard to put a price on. As a young man, he said, he became enchanted by a newspaper story about physicists who had traveled to a mountaintop to study radiation from space.
Because of their efforts, he said, he decided to become a scientist. Last year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.
“The world’s not going to end if we don’t build the super collider,” noted Louisiana’s Hayes. But to turn back now, he added, would be to abandon a project that could entice thousands of youngsters into science and help assure the nation’s technological viability in the years ahead.
But today, the future of the super collider is as uncertain as its beginning.
Alvin Trivelpiece, a former director of research for the Department of Energy who is now director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, recalled the time former President Reagan was first briefed on the super collider, which is to be called the Ronald Reagan Center for High Energy Physics.
Given No Assurances
He said the President was told that there could be no assurance that the project would ever lead to practical rewards.
“But it will make a lot of physicists happy,” he recalled telling Reagan.
The President said that seemed appropriate, since he had made his physics teachers very unhappy while he was a student, Trivelpiece said.
Then the President “just got up and walked out of the room,” Trivelpiece recalled. “He didn’t say yes or no.”
But everyone in the room, he added, knew Reagan wanted to see the super collider built.
And thus the project began, with neither a yes or no from the man whose name is supposed to one day adorn the most important high-energy physics laboratory in the world.