The abrupt cut-off in funding for the $11 billion Superconducting Supercollider project last November represented a victory for congressional deficit hawks, but it left the future of particle-physics research in this country in limbo. The short-term effect has been to cede U.S. leadership on one of the cutting edges of modern science.
Particle physics, as its name implies, is the branch of physical science that deals with the properties of subatomic particles and their interactions. The tools physicists use to investigate this subatomic realm are popularly known as ''atom smashers'' -- giant machines that employ powerful electromagnetic fields to accelerate elementary particles through a circular tunnel to within a fraction of the speed of light, then crash them into each other. The debris detected from these tiny collisions is then analyzed for clues regarding the laws governing the basic building blocks of matter.
The Superconducting Supercollider -- so named becaused it used superconducting magnets to accelerate the elementary particles -- was conceived as a circular underground tunnel 54 miles in circumference located near Waxahachie, Texas. The machine would have been 20 times more powerful than any existing accelerator, including the one at the European laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, known as CERN.
The size of the supercollider was dictated not by the familiar American propensity for gigantism, but by purely scientific considerations. The energy level particles are capable of achieving in an accelerator is a direct function of the size of the accelerator. The supercollider was designed to produce energy levels high enough to unlock some of nature's most perplexing ** mysteries.
xTC Much of the research envisioned by American scientists was directed toward attempting to verify competing theories of how subatomic particles interact under extreme conditions. A further major goal was to detect new particles -- such as the hypothesized Higgs boson -- predicted by theory but never observed directly in the laboratory.
The Higgs boson is thought to be responsible for endowing particles like protons and neutrons with the property of mass. In quantum mechanics it is conceived as being associated with a field that permeates the entire universe. This fundamental research might have led to breathtaking intellectual breakthroughs. Because of its abstract character, however, it was more difficult to garner public support for the supercollider than for the proposed Space Station, which seems to offer more immediate payoffs.
There were legitimate scientific complaints. Some critics charge that projects like the supercollider would siphon off federal research funds from smaller-scale experimental work with more immediate practical application. But there is no reason to believe that the $9 billion cost of the supercollider would have gone to other projects. It was a one-of-a-kind venture; most likely the funds that might have been budgeted for it simply will be lost to science.
Another complaint was that powerful as the proposed supercollider would have been, the energy levels it produced still would have been smaller by many orders of magnitude than those needed to explore conditions in the early universe. The issue is relevant because of the convergence over the last three decades of particle physics and cosmology, the branch of astronomy that deals with the origin and fate of the universe. Increasingly it has become impossible to explain the universe on the largest scale without reference to the subatomic world.
It is always difficult to balance the conflicting demands of near-term fiscal responsibility with the need for long-term investment. Faced with a nearly impossible budget dilemma, Congress persuaded itself it was choosing the lesser of the two evils by canceling the project.
The demise of the Superconducting Supercollider, however, means that this country has effectively ceded leadership in high-energy particle physics to the European consortium that operates CERN. Some physicists worry that U.S. researchers will be cut out of the work at CERN even if the U.S. kicks in part of the cost of upgrading that facility.
There is always the possibility scientists will come up with a cheaper scheme for carrying out the same work. But new technologies on the horizon could take at least a generation to mature. A similar machine may have to wait until the next century. For now, particle physics in this country seems to be dependent on foreign research.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.