Deep beneath the plains of central Texas lies a catacomb of tunnels once meant to house the most expensive physics experiment ever devised. That experiment, the Superconducting Supercollider, would have revolutionized our understanding of the physical world by giving us our first glimpse of the “God Particle.” And, proposed during the Cold War, it would have been a monument to the technological and scientific prowess of the Western world.
But in 1993 after investing over $2 billion dollars into the project, President Clinton and Congress cancelled it entirely. Highly sophisticated machinery and laboratories were simply sold to the highest bidder, and thousands of acres of empty land were parceled off and sold as well. All that now remains are 200,000 square feet of still-vacant factories and labs, and over 30 km of carved-rock tunnels slowly filling with water.
One of the most persistent mysteries of the Universe is why matter has mass at all. Physicists think they know the answer; a particle called the Higgs Boson, also called the “God Particle”, is thought to exist that gives all other particles mass. Around this theoretical particle they constructed the glittering edifice of late-20th century physics known rather plainly as the Standard Model.
Despite its tremendous importance, the Higgs has never been observed in experiments. According to calculations, it exists in detectable form only at astoundingly high temperatures and pressures – similar to those of the first few seconds after the Big Bang. Particle accelerators smash sub-atomic scraps together to regularly recreate such conditions, but none exists powerful enough to actually see the Higgs.
Frustrated by this problem, physicists petitioned the Department of Energy in the early 1980s to create the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. As its name suggests, the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) was to be enormous in every single way. It would slam particles together with more than 20 times the energy of any other existing or planned device. The beam of protons and anti-protons it would produce would be 100 times ‘brighter’ than even today’s most powerful accelerators. In order to control such tremendous energies, cutting-edge superconducting magnets would bend the beam around an oval-shaped beam tunnel more than 80 km in circumference.
Choosing the site for such an enormous facility was a country-wide effort involving geological and economic studies in 43 states. Though the process was a drawn-out political affair, the final choice seems a natural one; after all, everything’s bigger in Texas! The main accelerator ring would be bored through the bedrock 200 feet beneath Waxahachie, Texas. Sleepy Waxahachie would have been completely transformed by the SSC. Labs and factories were to be built nearby to produce the superconducting magnets and provide the above-ground facilities for the SSC’s considerable staff. Literally thousands of researchers, graduate students, and technicians would have been involved in running the machine and many would have been housed there.
Construction began in 1991, and by 1993 workers had dug over 30 km of tunnels. In order to bore through the sandstone and limestone beneath Waxahachie, a 15 foot diameter tunneling machine was created that literally chewed through the bedrock. Most of the ring tunnel would be a smooth-sided tube, but the giant particle detectors required cavernous galleries that had to be blasted out of the rock.
As work progressed on both the construction of the facilities and the design of the experiments themselves, expenses and projected costs rose precipitously. By 1993 the finished cost estimate was $8.25 billion; about the same as the projected cost of the International Space Station. Facing a bloating price tag on a program associated with his predecessor, President Clinton was never fond of the SSC. Without a presidential champion the deficit-weary Congress cut funding for the SSC entirely and chose to abandon the $2 billion that had already been spent.
Today the failure of the SSC project continues to cast a long shadow on the physics community. Had it been fully funded, it would have begun experiments by the late 1990s and produced results around the turn of the millennium. The capabilities it would have afforded scientists are still unmatched, even by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland which will not be fully operational for another few years.
Some say that the days of big particle accelerators may be gone for good. Though there are still a number of accelerators in operation, and others in construction and planning, none will push forward the boundaries of physics research as the SSC would have. Meanwhile, the needs of high energy physicists have only grown. The latest theories, including string theory, require accelerator energies greater than even the SSC could have produced in order to test their predictions.
The one piece of the SSC program that could not be sold or auctioned may prove to be the silver lining in this tale. After all, the Earth changes slowly – far more slowly than the whims of government-funded science. Should Congress and the President ever decide to revive the SSC, the tunnels beneath Waxahachie will be waiting.