Awaiting a decision on atom smasher

The Supercolliding Super Conductor's $4 billion-plus price tag is forcing the scientific community to evaluate its priorities carefully in the light of limited federal funds for research.

Particle physics is no trifling matter. Consider the latest plan of American scientists.

It will be the biggest undertaking in the history of pure science: the construction of a giant, atom-smashing particle accelerator that might help unveil the most basic constituents of the universe. With a circumference of 60 to 120 miles, it will be the embodiment of Big Science.

Its host site will be the dominant center for international physics well into the next century. But its estimated $4 billion price tag is forcing the scientific community to evaluate its priorities carefully in the light of limited federal funding for research.

Inside the accelerator's shielded underground tunnel, temperatures will exceed that of the hottest exploding star -- one hundred million billion degrees Fahrenheit -- as subatomic particles known as protons smack into each other at nearly light speed and break into tiny bits. Forty times more powerful than the biggest accelerators on Earth, the Supercolliding Super Conductor (SSC), as the machine is called, will thus enable scientists to make all sorts of conjectures about the fundamental nature of matter.

The SSC could, for example, help provide clues about the origin and destiny of the cosmos. It could help scientists determine whether the disparate forces of nature might be described in a series of simple, elegant equations. Many scientists say they believe that such a discovery could have profound, though as yet unimagined, practical implications just as the linking of electricity and magnetism in the late 19th century made possible much of this century's technology.

If it gets built, that is. The SSC's estimated $4 billion cost doesn't include operating expenses. An expenditure of that size would need congressional approval. Other big-ticket scientific projects, such as the proposed space station, will be looking for a congressional go-ahead at about the same time.

The question that will have to be faced is one echoed with increasing frequency about such high-budget scientific endeavors: Would the benefits gained from building the SSC outweigh the costs?

Scientifically, research is priceless in its own way and scientists say that few opportunites seem as timely as the vistas opened up by the SSC. Particle physics, its experts say, has reached a watershed. The world of the atom and the forces within it have been roughed out by a series of recent spectacular discoveries. But the picture is far from complete, and scientists are tantalized by the insights an instrument with the SSC's power could bring.

``Expect to see historic work coming from it,'' says Harvard theoretician Sheldon Glashow.

Practically, scientific research is an inherently risky proposition. Payoffs can never be predicted; in fact, an attempt to do just that would contradict the very nature of basic research. ``When somebody wants you to tell them what you're going to discover in five or 10 years from now, what do you say?'' asks Alvin Trivelpiece, director of the federal Department of Energy's Office of Energy Research. The most accurate answer is ``Who knows?''

Adds Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physicist Samuel C. C. Ting, ``Maybe we won't find anything.'' As unlikely as Dr. Ting thinks such an outcome might be, ``that in itself would be very interesting.''

The picture is complicated by more questions. Will a project as expensive and conspicuous as the SSC compete for funds with some of the less visible, but equally vital, research inhabiting the world of so-called ``small'' science? And since the SSC would be an international facility, should it seek monetary contributions from overseas?

Then there are the technical uncertainties, among them where the SSC would be located and how big it would be, which will command the attention of scientists around the country over the next year. Dr. Trivelpiece's office at the DOE, which funds several smaller US accelerators, is devoting $200 million just to study the feasibility of such a behemoth. ``There are simply no guarantees,'' he says. ``The whole project could be scrapped.''

Nevertheless, DOE officials say that by late 1986 the agency could be ready to recommend that the US commit the necessary funds to build the SSC. If the support of Congress and the White House were to be speedily garnered -- which observers say is far from certain -- construction could begin in 1987. By the mid-1990s, the SSC would be ready to run.

For many scientists, that would not be a moment to soon. In the international ball game of physics, recent innings have gone to CERN, the atomic research center straddling the Franco-Swiss border. During the 1970s, as unsteady federal funding in the US barely maintained the number of particle physicists at a constant level, Europe's nations doubled theirs. As delays and cost overruns eventually defeated a US plan for the world's most powerful accelerator -- the Colliding Beam Accelerator (CBA) at Long Island's Brookhaven National Laboratory -- CERN triumphantly laid plans for the 16-mile Large Electron-Positron (LEP) machine to loop beneath the dairy farms outside Geneva. Japan and the Soviet Union charged ahead on ambitious initiatives of their own.

``The consensus has been that we are in danger of falling behind,'' says Leon Lederman, director of Illinois's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). That notion prompted a group of top scientists who advise the federal government on such matters to recommend two years ago that the US move ahead on plans for the SSC.

Actually, Fermilab will soon have the world's most powerful accelerator when the four-mile Tevatron is fired up to full energy later this year. It will be a short-lived preeminence, however. By 1986, the completion of LEP will mean the seesaw will have once again tilted back to CERN, and the Europeans will have regained the initiative.

That is an uncomfortable feeling for many US scientists -- accustomed as they are to the leadership role this country a played since the modern accelerator's invention on a Berkeley, Calif., workbench in 1927. It has also stirred concern about a ``brain drain'' as researchers head to Europe and even Japan for the largest and most powerful accelerator facilities.

``In physics, no one cares who comes in second,'' says MIT's Ting, who shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of a quark -- an atomic building block -- dubbed the J particle. It was found using what was then a state-of-the-art accelerator at Long Island's Brookhaven National Laboratory. Now, however, Ting does much of his experimentation at CERN. ``I have to go where the best science can be done,'' he explains.

Few activities are as collegial as high-energy physics in many respects. Researchers freely share data and regularly trek to seminars and international conferences. Competition, which tends to be more between labs than continents, is of a generally sporting nature. ``It adds a little spice to things, but it's no driving force,'' says Cornell physicist Morry Tigner.

If current practices hold, accelerators such as LEP or the SSC will be open to the best experiments from around the globe. So many scientists scoff at some of the hand-wringing.

``It's a lot of garbage,'' says Carlo Rubbia, who shared 1984's Nobel physics award. A Harvard professor and Italian citizen, he has experiments under way in Europe, and at various locales across the US. His prize-winning investigations at CERN required the services of 180 PhDs from a dozen countries. ``It's all one world, one science,'' he insists. ``The important thing is not who makes the discovery but that it is made at all.''

Where a discovery is made, however, can have consequences that reach far beyond the science community.

Particle accelerators on which modern high-energy physics depend have thrust forward the state of the art in nuclear medicine and X-ray imaging, in electronics and computer technology, helped pioneer the use of ultra-cold metals -- called superconducters -- to create faster and more powerful electrical devices, and the list goes on.

Construction companies near the accelerator site flourish. High-technology companies in the area reap a steady demand for their precision wares. Economists for CERN calculate that every franc invested in high-energy physics over the last decade produced six francs for European industry. ``The economic benefits are undeniable,'' says CERN director William Sharper. Estimates for the US go even higher. ``Particle physics pays for itself,'' concludes Fermilab's Dr. Lederman. ``The cost almost becomes trivial.''

No less significant is the effect that a vigorous, and local, research effort can have on potential future scientists. That in itself, SSC advocates say, is a powerful reason for going ahead with such a project. ``You had a whole generation of Danish scientists and engineers because Neils Bohr made a name for himself,'' Lederman says of Denmark's famed theoretician. ``What kind of signal will we be sending to students if the great science is done elsewhere?''

This all makes the project a political plum for the host region. Nearly every state has shown interest in having the SSC.

A group in New Mexico wants to put the machine in the caldera of an ancient volcano. In California, one federal lab is hatching a plan for the SSC to circle the San Fernando Valley.

Utah's congressional delegation is girding for a lobbying effort to place the accelerator somewhere on the bed of the Great Salt Lake.

Texas, which would rather see the SSC within reasonable driving distance of Dallas and Houston, is sweetening its offer by throwing in the necessary land for free.

``We're confident,'' says Texas A&M University physicst Peter MacIntyre of his state's bid.

Fermilab, the grand doyen of American high-energy physics, fully intends to stay that way. It wants to use its Tevatron as an injector to boost protons on their journey toward light speed, saving in the process, Fermilab officials say, as much as $500 million. ``I certainly hope the site is chosen by peer review,'' chortles Lederman, ``because if it is, we're a shoo-in.''

Fermilab itself is no stranger to accelerator competition. When the facility was first proposed in the early '60s, 46 states offered 88 bids for location. Intensive lobbying by the Illinois congressional delegation reportedly tipped the scales. Apparently possession of a booster machine did not matter: The Illinois site was chosen over several others sporting machines that might have served as injectors.

Such haggling makes an international accelerator program even more difficult to carry off. ``We do far better with international cooperation in experiments than with building accelerators,'' says CERN's Dr. Sharper. CERN itself, a high-energy physics consortium of 12 European nations, has experienced difficulties in keeping its members unified; currently, Britain is considering withdrawal from the group.

The difficulties are magnified, scientists say, when the proposed ventures involve intercontinental cooperation. This has so far frustrated attempts by several scientific groups to establish a ``world accelerator,'' where several countries would share the financial burden of building it.

Some hope that the SSC might end up going part of the way toward that goal. ``The SSC may be just the thing that will break the dam open and make it easier for other projects down the line,'' says the White House science office's deputy director, John McTague. Presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II visited Japan recently and spoke to that country's government about possible scientific cooperation with the SSC.

The Canadian government also has expressed interest in participating. And studies commissioned by the 1982 Versailles summit of Western leaders are exploring ways to facilitate increased future cooperation in several technical and scientific fields, among them high-energy physics. -- 30 --

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