The supercollider that wasn’t
Science 8 January 2016:
Vol. 351 no. 6269 p. 130
Tunnel Visions The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider Michael Riordan, Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne W. Kolb University of Chicago Press, 2015. 462 pp
The reviewer is a senior correspondent for Science, AAAS, Washington, DC 20005, USA.
When a multibillion-dollar physics experiment is canceled, it’s tempting to look for lessons that can be applied to future megascience projects. A new book on the rise and fall of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) by a trio of science historians takes on that challenge. And while the authors do an excellent job of describing what occurred in the decade from its inception to its demise in 1993, they stumble when trying to assign blame.
Tunnel Visions presents a wealth of information on the internal conflicts that plagued the planning and construction of the SSC, a 40-TeV proton-proton collider that was to be built in a 70-km oval tunnel running under Waxahachie, Texas. There are loads of juicy stories for SSC aficionadas about the bad blood between the physicists and the engineers and between the lab managers and their overseers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The collider also triggered bitter internecine fights within the scientific community over its value and potential negative effect on prospects for other fields.
Equally at home in the laboratory and the halls of Congress, the authors trace the uphill—and ultimately successful—battle waged by a small group of legislators to pull the plug on the project’s funding. The retelling of these events highlights the SSC’s remarkably brief time in the national spotlight: Its death in October 1993 came less than 7 years after then-President Ronald Reagan endorsed the project by telling his domestic policy advisers to “throw deep” and only 11 years from the time physicists began talking about building a “desertron.”
Clearly a labor of love, the book itself was three decades in the making. It draws upon extensive archival material and interviews with more than 100 people who played roles, large and small, in the SSC saga. And while some of their stories have already appeared in other accounts, putting them all together creates as complete a picture of what happened as we’re ever likely to get.
The problem is attaching meaning to that narrative. The SSC is hardly the first planned science facility to be abandoned—DOE’s initial $18 million investment in the SSC, ironically, came from money originally budgeted for the next iteration of Brookhaven’s Isabelle accelerator, which also was never built. And the saga unfolded in a time and place that seems quite distant from the present—an era in which the hope for lasting world peace after the end of the Cold War combined with fears of an economically dominant Japan, to name just two features. So sifting through key strategic decisions in hopes of charting a path forward is a very risky business.
The book examines several “if-only” scenarios that, it argues, might have saved the collider, of which four stand out: If Cornell physicist Maury Tigner, architect of the original design, had been named lab director; if Fermilab in Illinois had been chosen as the site; if Japan had agreed to invest up to $1.5 billion in the project; and if George H. W. Bush had been reelected in 1992. Although it’s hard to refute alternative history, there’s little evidence that any or all of those developments would have turned the tide.
Equally dubious are some of the purported lessons to be learned—among them, that big science requires global cooperation, that the U.S. government favors applied over fundamental research, and that science is the first thing to go when Congress trims federal budgets. International partnerships certainly can ease the financial pain on individual countries. However, the troubled International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) currently being built in France demonstrates that global cooperation is hardly a guarantee of success. And NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope—with no obvious application beyond understanding the cosmos—seems likely to be completed despite a price tag that’s comparable to the SSC’s.
In addition, generalizations about congressional attitudes toward “science” writ large are rarely accurate. Only a few years after the SSC was defunded, for example, Congress began a 5-year doubling of NIH’s budget that added tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. research enterprise.
So what can be learned from the SSC’s demise? Very little, it seems. The U.S. government wrote off its $2.5 billion investment in a project whose estimated cost had grown from $4.3 billion to north of $10 billion.
Those who wish to keep the SSC in their hearts have a very affordable option, however. In 2004, Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, made the SSC the setting—and centerpiece—for a serious novel about science and global politics. The book, A Hole in Texas, was not a commercial hit, but you can buy it on Amazon for a penny.