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SSC Falls Victim To Politics, Money

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Associate News Editor

Congress' decision to cut the funding to complete the construction of the Superconducting Super Collider last October dealt a heavy blow to particle physics research, both at MIT and around the nation.

"The physics community felt that [the SSC] was extremely important for research into the most fundamental [physical] interactions," said Henry W. Kendall, J. A. Stratton professor of physics. "It had a design that would help it solve some of the outstanding problems in physics."

According to Vincent D. Rose '94, an astrophysics major and president of the Society of Physics Students, "The real cost is the trend that it reflects that the U.S. government is investing less in science" and taking less interest in it.

Overall, the SSC was the unfortunate victim of a variety of problems, which included a sluggish economy, federal budget reallocations, public misunderstanding, and difficulties in "big science," according to the physics community.

The cancellation of the SSC "was a disaster to high-energy physics because it has shut off a path to the future," said Institute Professor Jerome I. Friedman. Friedman shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics with Kendall and Canadian Richard E. Taylor for the discovery of quarks, which are among the simplest and most important of elementary particles.

The SSC was designed to investigate the fundamental nature of matter by smashing together extremely high-energy subatomic particles and observing the results. As these particles split apart, they release energy and form other fundamental particles. These are observed when they hit highly sensitive detectors.

When subatomic particles collide, the energy released is strong enough to break the bonds between the even smaller particles that are the most basic components of the universe.

Physically, the proposed SSC would have been an 86-kilometer oval tube beneath Waxahachie, Texas. The SSC was to have been 20 times more powerful than the largest existing accelerator, allowing particles to travel at a higher velocity.

The SSC project began to take form in 1983, when groups of particle physicists met to discuss what the next step in particle physics research should be, Friedman said. They concluded that the construction of the SSC would present the best prospects for further research into the nature of matter.

The SSC was to be "a continuation in U.S. programs which stretched since the 1950s. It would have been a culmination in research ... that has been enormously fruitful for the U.S.'' in the past, Kendall said.

The project was supported through three presidential administrations until coming under question in the early 1990s, Friedman said. The death of the SSC raises many questions among physicists as to what the future of particle physics will be.

"The cancellation of [the SSC] so abruptly after 10 years of government support ... really stresses relations between the government and the technological community," Kendall said.

"I'm not too concerned about the political repercussions. I am concerned about the [shrinking] investment in science, and that is what has people concerned in the world of physics," said Rose, who plans to attend graduate school. "I hope that I will be able to continue in physics," he said. "I hope there will be funding for that."

The general sentiment is that future, particle physics projects will have to depend more on international collaboration to avoid the problems that plagued the SSC.

Worldwide collaborative efforts play an increasing role, as "the scope of the apparatus" used to investigate particle physics "certainly makes it look like the way to go," Rose said.

Particle physicists now look to research at existing accelerators, such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator and CERN, Europe's main accelerator facility. In fact, CERN currently has plans for building a new, larger collider, dubbed the Large Hadron Collider.

"There will be a solace to find in terms of joining the LHC which is an accelerator proposed to be constructed at the CERN laboratory," Friedman said. "It's a somewhat lower energy machine [than the SSC], but will provide information for physics beyond the standard [physical] model."

Budget, waste were factors

One overwhelming factor that weighed against the proposed accelerator was the rumor of mismanagement, according to physicists. The SSC was nearing completion at a time of great concern about the deficit, Friedman said.

"A number of people in the House [of Representatives] had the feeling that this kind of research was a luxury," Friedman said.

However, Friedman pointed out that "the yearly construction budget [of the SSC] was on the order of two shuttle flights, so it was not as if this was an extraordinary expense in comparison to what they were spending at the time."

"This particular project did waste some money," Lightman said. "I don't know whether the governing bodies were lax in their management, but it is well known that money was wasted."

As a result of "the loss of this great project, the U.S. particle physics community is regrouping," Kendall said. "We have to now see whether there will be the funds to continue current research."

Kendall sees this cut in funding as a national trend. "Research at MIT is underfunded badly," he said. "This is generally true in the country."

Lack of public confidence also played a key role in the SSC's demise. The initial problems with the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope raised public doubt as to the dependability of so-called "big science" -- projects whose costs range in the billions of dollars.

"Congress-people question whether they should be spending tax dollars on the project" when other projects in big science, notably the Hubble, did not appear to be repaying taxpayers' investment, Lightman said.

"It's hard to pinpoint" the causes of the SSC's cancellation, said Friedman, pointing to delayed shuttle flights as another reason behind the lack of public confidence. "There was a feeling that big science was not ... dependable," he said. "The confidence in the science community was one of the elements involved" in the death of the SSC.

The combination of rumored waste of taxpayer dollars and lack of public confidence in big science was "devastating," Lightman said.

Doubtful merit fueled opposition

Over the past two years, public debate increasingly focused on whether the benefits of the Supercollider's research would be worth its billion-dollar price tag. Many questioned how the discovery of subatomic particles or confirmation of a "grand unified theory" could have any bearing on contemporary American lifestyle.

According to Friedman, the SSC "became the symbol of something so esoteric, we could not support it."

The SSC faced a national "attitude that put basic research at not a very high priority in the country," said Friedman. "Unless one could establish the benefits of research at its outset, one had to be very cautious about its [being supported]."

"We have no way of knowing" what the future benefit of SSC research may have been, Rose said, "since projects like this are on the frontier of technology."

Supporters of the SSC expected the new technology to have unforeseen spin-offs in applied science. Historically, endeavors in pure science have provided the foundations for the development of applications in fields such as engineering, medicine, and chemistry, as well as in physics, Friedman said.

"Pure knowledge is a noble human pursuit," said Lightman, "but you can also argue for its applications." For instance, "when Maxwell worked out the equations for electromagnetism [in the late 19th century], that was pure science," he said. "Pure science always became applied science."

The public's doubt over the SSC was not whether its research could lead to applications, but whether it could lead to applications of comparable importance to society.

According to MIT physicists, historical evidence seems to indicate that such windfalls would have been a possibility. One example has been the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging. "Nuclear magnetic resonance was invented first for physics research," said Rose. "Magnetic resonance imaging, CAT scans ... have been used for everything, not only for medical applications."

Another application, has been synchrotron radiation, which has been "extremely important to biology, medicine, chemistry, and materials science," said Friedman.

However, "experiments in pure physics really have a great difficulty in convincing the public," said Lightman, who does not see the failure of the SSC as a failure on the part of physicists.

"I think the support of pure science has always faced an uphill battle," he said, "but if we look at the situation, historically it's clear that pure science has always paid off," said Lightman.

"There's also this quest for truth that science is worth investing in, for itself," said Rose.