A Collider's Crash
PHYSICISTS who regret the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider particle accelerator should take a broader view. All they have lost is a millstone from around their necks.
The project's estimated $11 billion cost is more than the United States could justify. The annual wrangling over this issue was a constant drag on the program's progress. It had already caused a three-year stretch-out of the construction timetable with an accompanying rise in overall cost. Further delays would have been likely down the road.
Boosters who tried to sell the project in economic terms did physics no favor. There's no telling what practical benefits may ultimately come from a deeper knowledge of basic material forces. But claims that the collider would have a significant impact on US economic competitiveness and national job growth were invalid, and most physicists know it. The inevitable failure to produce such benefits would only feed the public's general disenchantment with basic science.
Now physicists have an opportunity to start afresh and from the right basis. The collider was justified scientifically. Physicists sense they are on the verge of unraveling such mysteries as why matter has mass. They need a machine of the collider's energy to do it. Its cost will be bearable if shared internationally. Other nations were not eager to join the American project after the fact. To succeed, such a project must be truly international from the start, with all partners sharing in its planning and management.
This cuts across the grain of physicists' traditional sense of competition. Collider advocates looked forward to competing against the European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) at Geneva, whose member states plan a similar, although less powerful, collider. Now these states are wondering if Europe also can go it alone in funding such a machine.
Arguments that the US needs a nationally based machine to maintain scientific leadership and inspire students ring hollow. American, European, Japanese, and Russian physicists work freely in each other's national research centers. The competing research teams already have an international flavor. Moreover, any knowledge gained in one center is freely available to all humanity.
The world needs an accelerator of supercollider power, but it needs only one. Even many opponents of the American supercollider acknowledge this. American physicists should seize the opportunity they now have to build on this perception. They should meet with foreign colleagues to plan a world machine. And those in Congress and the administration who supported the supercollider for its scientific merits rather than its pork barrel potential should support the physicists' efforts.