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.
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.
When they collide, the subatomic particles should shatter into their most basic elements. The collisions will come by the millions, and processing the data the super collider produces will push the limits of computer power, says Paul A. Fleury, a physicist at AT&T Bell Labs in Short Hills, N.J.
The most expensive items in the super collider are the magnets that will hold the racing particles in their track. Each superconducting magnet is more than 50 feet long, and 8,700 of them will line the collider ring.
The most powerful accelerator currently in use is the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago. The Texas SSC will pack 20 times the energy of the Fermilab's accelerator, pushing particle physics to an entirely new level.
A European consortium, CERN, which completed the world's largest accelerator last year (17 miles in circumference), is planning a new circular accelerator in Switzerland that will probably achieve about a third of the energy level of the SSC.
For many scientists and policymakers the reluctance to cede the lead in particle physics to the Europeans is a driving force behind the SSC, especially after CERN beat Fermilab to a Nobel Prize-winning discovery by a few months.
From high-temperature superconductors to areas in solid-state physics, says Georgetown's Dr. Lambert, ``other countries are taking over the lead in many areas the US developed.''
But the SSC will not be entirely an American venture either. The federal government plans to fund about two-thirds of the total cost. Another billion dollars will come from the state of Texas, and the US Department of Energy is seeking foreign participation in raising the rest, particularly from Japan and South Korea.
Big science is in general a heavily international enterprise. MIT scientists have put together a major team that will apply to run experiments on the SSC. More than two-thirds of its money and two-thirds of its scientists would come from outside the US. Many of the other groups requesting collider time are led by foreign scientists.
Particle physicists have been the elite corps of the physics community since World War II. But the SSC has raised concerns that other physics research will be crowded out of the federal budget.
``What the country has got to understand is that the university researchers have been left behind by the big science,'' says Dr. Fleury of Bell Labs. Physics funding, apart from the collider, has risen, but only modestly.
``What it comes down to is whose ox is being gored,'' says Richard Jones, senior liaison for government and institutional relations for the American Institute of Physics in Washington, D.C. ``If a fellow's grant is being cut, the first thing he will want to point to is the SSC.''
Fleury, who is an officer of the American Physical Society, the nation's foremost group of physicists, surveyed ``small science'' researchers around the country in condensed-matter physics and found that the uninflated value of grants has remained about the same in recent years, but the number of researchers making serious proposals for grants has nearly doubled.
``It is the mode of small science which has been and continues to be increasingly the source of our manpower in the scientific field,'' Fleury says.
Much of the technology in the super collider, he adds, is so esoteric as to make valuable spinoff technology less likely. ``Somewhere between gigavolts [1 billion] and teravolts [1 trillion],'' he says, the technology loses its link to present human concerns.
Other scientists argue that the history of big-science projects has always shown technological fallout from them. A common view is that Americans should choose a few of the best projects and take their chances on all their unpredictabilities.
``What it is going to do is train a lot of people and direct a lot of attention,'' says Dr. Morrison of MIT. ``The money does not disappear into neutrinos,'' he observes. ``It's in Texas somewhere.'' And, politically savvy as SSC supporters are, some of the money will be in at least 39 other states before the first proton runs the track.