What Came After the Big Bang?
Answering a frontier-type question excites those supporting $8 billion super collider project
THINK of the 54-mile, supercharged, superconducting, super collider loop planned near Waxahachie, Texas, as a sort of time machine. Its head-on collisions of subatomic particles traveling at nearly the speed of light will simulate the first violent nanoseconds after the Big Bang that theoretically scattered the universe into its current shape.Skip to next paragraph
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The superconducting super collider (SSC) represents the classic human desire for sheer knowledge. The question it is designed to answer - the fundamental nature of matter - has no direct or foreseeable practical applications.
But, with an estimated price tag of $8 billion, it is also undeniably a pork-barrel project, or ``quark barrel'' as critics have dubbed it. Its cost, like the outer edge of the universe, has expanded dramatically since the SSC first won official endorsement in 1987.
Yet the project has taken on a political life of its own, apart from its scientific purposes. Some $200 million has already been spent in more than 40 states on the project, according to the Energy Department, and far more lucrative contracts are yet to come. Not surprisingly, congressional support for the project has solidified.
But the enormous cost of the machine has set some teeth on edge, especially among research scientists themselves. Their chief concern is that the expense of the super collider will crowd out money for ``small science,'' the myriad research projects taking place in university laboratories all over the country.
``Big science is very expensive,'' says James Lambert, chairman of the physics department at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., ``but it involves frontier-type things.'' The importance of these projects is not the findings themselves but the impetus and excitement they create in national science, he says.
``The country is wholly dependent on its science and technology in a competitive way and we're very close to losing that [lead],'' he says.
Like the Apollo moon mission in the 1960s, the super collider appeals to Americans who take pride in the fact that the United States produces some of the world's foremost engineers and explorers.
In weighing the cost of the project, ``the analysis clearly suffers from the fact that this got its impetus from Reagan's desire for national prestige,'' says Philip Morrison, professor emeritus of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., and a writer on science subjects. ``This is a tribute to national glory and Texas partisanship.''
In President Bush's proposed budget for next year, the super collider is billed as a symbol and ``critical part of the administration's initiative to strengthen America's position as a world leader in science and technology.''
Since that budget was proposed last January, however, the estimated cost of the super collider has risen $2.1 billion, or 36 percent above the original 1986 estimate.
THE point of this machine is nothing less than to discover the most elemental nature of matter.
Most physicists agree with the theory that the primary building blocks of atomic particles are six kinds of quarks, only five of which have been discovered so far. But the so-called ``standard model'' that describes them has some ungainly, random-seeming elements that are unsatisfying to researchers.
``We know there's something wrong with it,'' says one particle physicist. ``We sense a simpler form behind it.''
The super collider should take scientists to the next level of simplicity by, in effect, taking them to a simpler time. The Big Bang, which the most widely accepted theory says formed the universe, is still exploding, still dissipating energy. The higher the energy level they can re-create - possible in a machine like the super collider - the earlier, tinier, and simpler the forms of matter they can glimpse.
The $8 billion price comes with no guarantees. But the SSC is bound to hold valuable scientific surprises. Physicists are still honing their knowledge on atom-smashers nearly 25 years old.
In the SSC, scheduled for completion in 1998, proton beams will race around a quarter-inch-thick, 54-mile-round collider ring in opposite directions, accelerating for millions of laps until each bears 20 trillion electron-volts of energy for a combined collision force of 40 trillion electron-volts.