Super accelerator runs into friction. US budget squeeze could retard plans for atom-smasher
San Francisco — The intensifying debate over building a giant new atom-smasher somewhere in the United States may prove that in politics, as in physics, Sir Isaac Newton's law prevails - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So far, momentum clearly has been on the side of the superconducting supercollider (SSC), as the proposed particle accelerator is called. The Reagan administration is convinced that the US should build it. High-energy physicists say their research into the origins of matter will be stalled without it. And at least 30 states are vying to be the chosen site for the $4.4 billion project.
More than 200 members of the House of Representatives recently endorsed a bill that would authorize initial spending of $35 million on supercollider.
But SSC does have its critics in Congress, within the scientific community, and, in a few cases, on the local level. If they have not stopped momentum for the SSC, at least they have slowed it.
Alvin Trivelpiece, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was instrumental in winning the President's support for the SSC during his tenure as an assistant secretary in the US Department of Energy (DOE). Dr. Trivelpiece says that, if $10 million for construction is not forthcoming, everyone is going to have to take a deep breath and figure out what to do next. ``The SSC may not be built on the scale and at the pace we would like,'' he says.
Earlier this summer the House refused to appropriate the $10 million. To US Rep. Buddy MacKay (D) of Florida, it is ``preposterous'' for the Energy Department to announce a site or begin planning construction for a project Congress has not even authorized yet.
``That's how we end up spending billions on science projects, like [nuclear] breeder reactors and coal gasification, before we really decide we want to commit to that technology,'' he says. ``We can't let DOE finesse the policy debate on this one.''
The SSC will be the largest basic-research tool ever built - an underground ring 53 miles in diameter designed to produce energy levels 20 times higher than that achieved by existing accelerators. With it, physicists intend to speed two beams of protons in opposite directions around the racetrack. They hope a proton-proton collision at this powerful energy level will confirm the existence of a hypothetical group of subatomic particles, as well as reveal more about one of the basic constituents of matter - the quark.
The scientific search for smaller and smaller particles requires higher and higher energy levels - and huge projects like the SSC to produce them. ``The particles we've found, we've found because we've had the right accelerators,'' Stanford University physicist Martin Perl explained last week, speaking at an educational forum on the SSC sponsored by the University of California. ``Right now, we're stuck.''
But some critics, citing the law of diminishing returns, are now asking whether the SSC would be worth all the money spent on it. As last week's forum showed, SSC advocates are moving fast to deflect criticism, including the following objections.
Cost. Scientists cannot expect to get federal funding for all their big-ticket items in this era of concern about the federal deficit, critics say. ``They want a space station, a replacement shuttle, a human-gene mapping project, and the supercollider,'' says Congressman MacKay. ``Well, I can tell you right now it just isn't going to happen.'' The scientific community, he adds, needs to establish its priorities.
But Trivelpiece says investment in basic research consistently yields high returns. A third of the gross national product in the US ``owes its existence in part to our fundamental understanding of the atom,'' he says.
Advances in superconductivity. Some scientists have suggested recent breakthroughs in the field of superconductivity should be applied to the SSC, making it smaller and cheaper to build. If the DOE proceeds as planned, the SSC will be technologically obsolete by the time it's built, they contend. But SSC advocates say it could be 20 years before the new findings could be applied to the specific technology of the SSC. ``Twenty years is four generations of graduate students,'' says Peter J. Limon of the SSC Central Design Group. ``If we wait until then, there will be no more high-energy physicists left in this country. They'll all be working somewhere else.''
US competitiveness. While basic research is vital, the most compelling scientific need now is for advances in manufacturing and processing technologies to help American industry, says Brent Rosenkranz, aide to US Rep. Don Ritter (R) of Pennsylvania. The US must become more adept at ``taking scientific breakthroughs and finding how they can be used to put new products on the shelf,'' he says.
The counterargument, however, is that today's basic research is tomorrow's new industry. Communications satellites, new plastics and ceramics, medical advances, alternative energy sources, and computers, to name a few, have their origins in the laboratory, SSC proponents say.
Even so, some predict broad congressional support will evaporate after one state wins the site-selection contest. ``People are starting to call it quark-barrel politics,'' Congressman MacKay says.