Scientists for years have urged the federal government to commit itself to the world's largest atom smasher. Last Friday they got a big boost from the Reagan administration when it announced its support and encouraged other countries to help build it. ``This will be the crown jewel of high-energy physics,'' said Energy Secretary John Herrington.
``We're all delighted,'' adds Tom Ferbel, a University of Rochester physicist. ``It's a marvelous thing for the United States. And a marvelous thing for science.''
With an estimated $6 billion pricetag, however, the project known as the Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC, might not receive the necessary funding from Congress to be completed at all, much less by the planned 1996 construction date. Physicists say Congress should make its decision in this session.
``What I'd like to see is a definite answer out of the government,'' says Russ Huson, director of the Texas Accelerator Center near Houston, who supports the project. ``I think the worst situation would be for it [a decision] to drag on for the next few years.''
Physicists are anxious to build the giant atom smasher, because it could well propel dramatic leaps in their knowledge of the basic makeup of the universe. Physicists use atom smashers to accelerate protons and other tiny particles to nearly the speed of light and then smash them against targets or other moving particles to see what pops out. In this way, scientists hope to discover the basic building blocks of matter.
Physicists concede, however, that they do not know what new information the SSC will provide. ``You don't know and you can't guarantee it,'' says Joseph Lach, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. The history of such projects, however, has been that they yield unexpected discoveries.
There are eight such facilities operating around the world, the largest of which is located at Fermilab. Two other such devices are under construction, one in the Soviet Union and another in China.
But the SSC, if built, would dwarf all these facilities. For example, instead of spinning protons around a four-mile-long ring as at Fermilab, the SSC would whiz them about a 52-mile ring.
The SSC's size would significantly reduce the drag that occurs when particles are forced to travel in a curved path, thus helping to boost their energy level from Fermilab's nearly 1 trillion electron volts (or 1 TeV) to an expected 20 TeV.
``It's a big jump. Probably bigger than we've ever taken before,'' says Dr. Lach.
The SSC is needed, physicists say, because it is the one way to test theories about what happens at such high energy levels. ``Without it or the equivalent soon, a 2,000-year search for the fundamental building blocks and forces of nature would come to an end,'' says Richard Lander, physics professor at the University of California at Davis.
Cosmologists are also interested in the SSC because its particle collisions would create high energy levels, presumably not seen since the very beginning of the universe.
Certainly, there is growing support for SSC among the states, of which some 20 are vying to have the project located in their own backyards. Illinois and California have worked the hardest and longest to bring the SSC their way, according to physicists involved in various lobbying efforts. Texas, Colorado, and a possible consortium of northeastern states and Canada are also considered strong contenders for the site.
These states are interested because the SSC would employ about 3,000 scientists and technicians and lure other high-technology companies to the area.
``It would certainly change a quiet community,'' says Elizabeth Donovan, mayor of Malone, N.Y. The village of 7,600 people was chosen by the state as one of three possible SSC sites. The project could import power from Canada and bolster the upstate community's economy, which has been hit by layoffs and the closing of a dress factory.
``We have a good workforce,'' says Mayor Donovan, who has just begun considering the SSC. ``I just want to be sure it's right for the area.''