On July 4, 2012, scientists around the world waited with bated breath for the announcement that the long-awaited Higgs boson particle had been discovered. The finding — the result of the biggest and most expensive experiment in history — was set to either confirm reigning models of particle physics, or reveal gaps in scientists’ understanding of the universe.
A new documentary follows six scientists during the launch of the machine that made the discovery possible, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a gigantic particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in Switzerland, as they attempt to recreate the earliest moments of the universe. “Particle Fever” captures the scientists’ sense of excitement and foreboding leading up to the discovery of the Higgs, the particle that explains how other particles get their mass.
“I knew this big event was coming, and I wanted it recorded,” said producer David Kaplan, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. “I knew it was going to be extremely dramatic scientifically, and also emotionally, for all of my colleagues,” Kaplan told Live Science.
The film, which opens March 5 in New York and March 21 in Washington, D.C., stars a group of theoretical and experimental physicists united by a quest to probe the nature of the universe, using the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. The LHC collides two beams of protons (particles that make up the nuclei of atoms) at near light-speed around the 17 miles (27 kilometers) of the machine’s ring. The collisions produce new particles, which could reveal the composition of space itself.
The film opens during the first test of a single proton beam in September 2008. Viewers meet Fabiola Gianotti, the former spokeswoman for ATLAS, one of the two LHC experiments that detected the Higgs, as well as experimental physicists Monica Dunford and Martin Aleksa, both at ATLAS, who rose to prominence throughout the course of the experiment. Mike Lamont, the LHC’s beam operation leader, also features in the film. Lamont faces the formidable challenge of ensuring the LHC’s successful launch and operation.
But to understand why scientists need the LHC, one first has to understand the hypotheses it is putting to the test.
Supersymmetry vs. multiverse
The Standard Model of particle physics, finalized in the 1970s, seeks to explain the origin of matter and forces in the universe. The model predicts the existence of a few fundamental particles, including the Higgs boson, theorized by British physicist Peter Higgs in 1964. Finding the Higgs confirms the existence of the Higgs field, and this field gives all other particles their mass.
An extension of the Standard Model known as supersymmetry suggests a highly structured and symmetrical universe, in which every particle has a supersymmetric twin that has yet to be discovered. Another, somewhat radical hypothesis suggests the known universe is part of a much larger, chaotic multiverse, in which the laws of physics are random.
The film pits Kaplan and Stanford theorist Savas Dimopoulos, proponents of supersymmetry, against the young Princeton theorist Nima Arkani-Hamed, a supporter of the multiverse idea. The LHC offers the chance to test these hypotheses for the first time. If supersymmetry proves itself, physicists are on the right track. On the other hand, “We may fall off a cliff,” and find that the fundamental laws of physics turn out to be random, Kaplan said.
Biggest experiment in history
The beam test went off successfully in 2008, but a few weeks later, a catastrophic explosion in the facility vented liquid helium, damaging many of the magnets inside the LHC.
“The whole film changed,” said director Mark Levinson, who added he didn’t know how long it would take to fix the damage, and whether the film would have a happy ending. Fortunately, repairs were completed, and the collider was up and running by November 2009.
Fast-forward to July 2012, and the discovery of the Higgs. The particle observed by the LHC confirmed what physicists had long suspected, but also brought up new questions.
Most supersymmetry models predict a Higgs boson with a mass of about 115 gigaelectronvolts, or GeV, whereas multiverse models predict a heavier mass of about 140 GeV. The Higgs observed by the LHC was about 125 GeV — smack in the middle, which doesn’t confirm or rule out either theory. Instead, it merely narrows down the possibilities.
It’s like being lost in the woods, and then getting a hint of the broad direction you should go, Kaplan said, adding, “At least you know which way to start walking.”
In the next step, scientists will collide protons at higher energies, to see if even more particles are created, as predicted by supersymmetry. The LHC was shut down for upgrades in 2013, with plans to reopen it running at twice the power in 2015.
The filmmakers hope “Particle Fever” gives audiences an appreciation of particle physics, and gets them excited about learning more. As Kaplan said, “We want people to come out thinking physics is awesome.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 6:07 p.m. ET, to correct references to untested “theories” to “hypotheses” or “models.”
LONDON — Exotic particles never before detected and possibly teensy extra dimensions may be awaiting discovery, says a physicist, adding that those searching for such newbies should keep an open mind and consider all possibilities.
Such particles are thought to fill gaps in, and extend, the reigning theory of particle physics, the Standard Model, said David Charlton of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who is also a spokesperson of the ATLAS experiment at the world’s biggest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and one of the experiments that pinpointed the Higgs boson particle thought to explain why other particles have mass.
Charlton addressed an audience of researchers last month at a talk titled “Before, behind and beyond the discovery of the Higgs Boson” here at the Royal Society.
“The questions raised by the discovery of the Higgs boson suggest new physics, and new particles, may be near to hand, at the energies now — and soon — being probed at the LHC,” he said. Such questions, he said, include: why is the Higgs boson so light; and why does the Standard Model have such difficulty explaining physics that occurs at masses higher than that of the Higgs boson, to name a couple.
The LHC, housed in a 17-mile-long (27 kilometers) circular, underground tunnel at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, smashes protons together at near light speed. The resulting collisions release huge amounts of energy in the form of particles — possibly new, exotic ones.
At the moment, the particle accelerator is switched off so that an upgrade can be made. However, it will start hunting for new particles again in 2015, smashing protons together at its maximum energy of 14 TeV, or terra electron volts.
Before they wake up the LHC from its nap, scientists are busy putting together an extensive program of searches for new particles that could validate one or another extension to the reigning theory of particle physics — the Standard Model.
Because it is impossible to know for certain what these hypothetical particles would be, researchers will look at many and varied collision types, “hunting in numerous ways for deviations in the data from the background expectations from known processes,” said Charlton. (Physicists know what distributions should result from the formation of various known particles, so if they see a deviation from these expectations, they can hypothesize that a new particle has been detected.)
An extension to the Standard Model is necessary to shed light on the remaining mysteries of the universe, such as the nature of dark matter, the elusive particles that are thought to account for about 85 percent of all the matter in the universe.
Many have hailed supersymmetry, a theory that posits every known particle in the universe has a yet-undiscovered and much heavier sister particle, as the main candidate for an extension. However, the LHC’s failure to produce any proof of supersymmetric particles has prompted a number of scientists to look elsewhere for evidence of new physics.
“Supersymmetry is a great idea, but there’s no experimental evidence for it at this stage,” said Charlton. “It’s just one of the possibilities for physics beyond the Standard Model, and it has some elegant math properties so it tends to be favored. But there’s a range of other models that could also help to explain some of the problems that we see with the Standard Model.”
One popular alternative to supersymmetry proposes the idea of extra dimensions.
Scientists suspect extra dimensions exist in space and time; these dimensions are microscopic, proponents say, making them tricky for detectors to pick up. “But as we go to very high energies with the LHC, maybe we’ll start to see evidence of extra dimensions,” said Charlton. Such evidence would come in the form of new particles, or perhaps missing energy as some particles move off in dimensions other than the ones people can see. Such extra dimensions are needed in string theory, which suggests that tiny strings replace sub-atomic particles.
Another idea suggests that the particles that have already been found are not actually fundamental, meaning they have a sub-structure composed of even smaller particles. And then there is string theory, which suggests tiny strings replace subatomic particles.
Searching for ‘something’
But physicists should not simply be searching for evidence to support one theory or another, Charlton said. Rather, it is important “to look at every rare process we can that might be a signal for some new physics showing up. We have to study each one and see if it’s consistent with our expectations.”
If LHC fails to detect any signs of new physics, the only way forward is scaling up to higher-energy collisions and more intense beams. “There could be a model that we haven’t thought of yet,” said Charlton.
And it is this possibility of “something out there that researchers haven’t thought of yet and that would explain all the mysteries” that is the most exciting, said physicist Ben Allanach of the University of Cambridge, adding, “Of course, if I could think of that, I’d be working on that.”
To spot this “something,” physicists must look for high-energy particles in many different ways and many different configurations, and see whether the data is consistent with the expectations, or if there’s something that perhaps isn’t predicted by any of the existing models, Charlton said.
“We really have to try to be as open as possible and try to leave no stone unturned in looking at all the possibilities,” said Charlton.
Science breakthroughs in the past year include the discovery of new planets far beyond Earth’s solar system, the confirmation of an elusive particle and new clues about the evolutionary history of early humans. But science keeps marching on, raising the question: What will next year bring?
An unscientific survey of scientists from a variety of fields yields some predictions — and some ambitious hopes and dreams for 2014.
From discoveries to send the physics world reeling to the search for alien moons, here’s what scientists are wishing for in the new year.
For now, the famous Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the border of France and Switzerland is quiet, shut down for two years of maintenance and improvements that will make the particle collider stronger than ever when it comes back online in 2015.
But the pace of physics hasn’t slowed. The last of the LHC results from earlier tests are still to come, said Tara Shears, a physicist at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. And other big experiments are underway. In 2014, Shears will watch an experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that is investigating antihydrogen, the antimatter component of hydrogen. Antimatter is a material with the same mass as ordinary matter but is made of particles with opposite charges. CERN’s ALPHA experiment seeks to investigate the gravitational interaction between matter and antimatter.
Shears is also intrigued by measurements by the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which is aboard the International Space Station. In April 2013, scientists announced the AMS had detected an excess of high-energy positrons, an antimatter particle that is essentially the opposite of an electron. Finally, Shears is hoping for more knowledge about neutrinos, neutral subatomic particles, from a new measurement chamber at Fermilab in Illinois.
Most of all, Shears hopes for a measurement that disrupts the Standard Model of physics, an explanation of how tiny particles interact. So far, discoveries such as the confirmation of the Higgs boson particle all match the Standard Model’s predictions, which is disappointing because the model can’t explain all the weirdness of the universe, Shears said.
“I hope for a stealth measurement, a Trojan horse that makes the Standard Model crumble ’round it,” Shears told LiveScience.
Other mysteries are lurking in the far reaches of the universe, where new observations are increasingly revealing planets far outside the bounds of this solar system. Researchers have found more than 800 of these exoplanets, but they’re most excited about the dozen or so that have the potential to be habitable.
The past year turned up a few potential “Earth 2.0s,” said Abel Mendez, a planetary scientist and director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. But the worlds still need to be confirmed as such. Mendez has ambitious hopes for 2014. He’d like to see a calculation of the density of a potentially habitable exoplanet, he told LiveScience. He’d also like to see an Earth-like planet discovered closer to Earth, which would allow for better characterizations than can be made about far-flung worlds.
Mendez’s final dream for the new year? The discovery of an exomoon. So far, scientists have not been able to detect whether the exoplanets they’ve found have their own satellites, but experience in this solar system suggests they should.
“These three goals are very ambitious for just next year, but would represent a big advancement for exoplanets science,” Mendez said.
Back on Earth, 2014 could be a strong year for medical science, said bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the New York University Langone Medical Center. Caplan predicts major advances in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease using computed tomography (CT) scanning or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). He also hopes to see stem cells— cells that can differentiate to become many types of tissue — take their place in doctors’ bags of tricks.
“2014 could be the year in which regenerative medicine using stem cells shows its first real breakthrough for treating intractable diseases such as spinal-cord injury,” Caplan told LiveScience.
Caplan has high hopes for medical ethics in the new year, too. Electronic forms for informed consent should start to replace paper consent forms, he said, which will make it easier to quiz patients to be sure they really understand the procedures they’re agreeing to undergo. He also expects patients to challenge the norm of donated tissue samples being used in research; currently, any monetary benefit from these donations goes to researchers or drug developers rather than to the donors who made the work possible.
Finally, Caplan said, 2014 should be the year in which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes guidelines for at-home genetics testing. There are rumblings that the regulatory agency is turning its attention to these new tests. In November, California-based genetics testing company 23andMe received a FDA warning to stop marketing its mail-in genetics tests, which can tell buyers their genetic risk of certain diseases. The company has temporarily suspended those tests while it works with the FDA.
Caplan expects that when the FDA releases new regulations, it will change the way at-home genetics testing operates.
“No existing companies using current methods will meet those regulations, but they will begin to add more counseling and information on test accuracy in order to do so,” he said.
New will meet old in 2014 in the field of paleontology, where technology is making it increasingly easier to investigate fragile fossils.
“The use of technology in the recovery and analysis of fossils is blossoming,” said Matthew Mossbrucker, director of the Morrison Natural History Museum in Morrison, Colo. “For example, fine-scale CT scanning and virtual preparation can accelerate the process of examining fossils that were thought to be inaccessible — either because they are locked in hard rock or perhaps too delicate to prepare mechanically.”
Researchers can even use new 3D-printing technology to take digital scans of fossils and turn them into perfect 3D copies to be studied and displayed. Mossbrucker and his colleagues plan to use CT scanning to analyze delicate fossils trapped in hard sandstone in the coming year, he said.
“These methods will not replace traditional fossil preparation, but will be another arrow in our quiver,” Mossbrucker told LiveScience.
Robotics and biomechanics researcher Andy Ruina of Cornell University calls his 2014 wishes “rather pedestrian” — that is, he wants to see robots act more like pedestrians.
The challenge is to create legged automatons that can walk on uneven surfaces, as humans do, using about the same amount of energy that humans do, Ruina told LiveScience. So far, Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot Atlas can handle rough terrain, but only while tethered to a power supply.
Ruina would also like to see a theory of robot control that explains how living creatures move and handle objects while also providing blueprints on how to get a machine to make the same movements.
Jekanthan Thangavelautham, a roboticist at Arizona State University has similar dreams of an graceful robot that could manage greyhound-like speeds outdoors — in the range of 43 mph (70 km/h), that is. He’d also like to see a fully 3D-printed robot, as well as more robots put to more practical uses. The military, for example, could start using robotic exoskeletons in the field to give soldiers a boost of strength for carrying heavy packs or lifting armaments.
If all had gone according to plan, the gargantuan U.S. high-energy physics project would have already found the Higgs particle, having solidly won the competition with its European competitor. Peter Higgs, in fact, might have collected his physics Nobel a few years earlier.
The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) that would have graced the rolling prairies of Texas would have boasted energy 20 times larger than any accelerator ever constructed and might have been revealing whatever surprises that lay beyond the Higgs, allowing the U.S. to retain dominance in high-energy physics. Except the story didn’t play out according to script. Twenty years ago, on October 21, 1993, Congress officially killed the project, leaving behind more than vacant tunnel in the Texas earth.
Since then, the glory of particle physics has moved to Europe. Last year the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, discovered the Higgs, the biggest event in physics in a generation, and, adding insult to injury, announced it on a U.S. national holiday: the Fourth of July.
What went wrong with the SSC, in a nation then usually admired for its can-do attitude? What lessons were learned to apply to future efforts? And what has been the impact on U.S. physics since the spotlight moved to Europe?
Although no one reason explains the cancellation, a few key aspects of the project stand out. The inability to secure any foreign sources of funding was pivotal, especially as the project’s cost increased by a factor of three from initial estimates amid a national recession and political insistence on controlling government spending. The project’s scale was 20 times bigger than anything physicists had ever managed before, and cultural differences between the scientific side of the accelerator’s management and the military-industrial culture imposed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) led to conflicts, seemingly endless audits and an overall lack of trust.
An accelerator that would collide high-energy protons, the SSC’s ring was to be 87.1 kilometers in circumference, circling the small town of Waxahachie, Tex., 48 kilometers south of Dallas. At 20 tera-electron volts (TeV, or trillion electron volts) per proton—close to the regime of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays—it was to have 20 times the collision energy of any existing or planned machine; it would have had five times the energy of even today’s LHC collisions. That design had only one tenth the beam luminosity of the LHC, but because of its higher energy, it would have produced about half the Higgs events seen at CERN, says John Gunion of the University of California, Davis, enough to have found the Higgs and with the higher energy necessary to detect what, if anything, lies past the Higgs energy, such as supersymmetric or dark matter constituents.
When canceled, about 20 percent of the SSC was complete—specifically, two dozen kilometers of tunnel had been drilled with 17 access shafts, and 18,600 square meters of buildings erected. Over $2 billion had already been spent, mostly by the DoE, but also $400 million by the state of Texas.
At its end the project was already employing 2,000 people at the site or in Dallas, about 200 of whom were scientists, plus a contingent of Russian physicists employed after the end of the Cold War. Another 13,000 jobs linked to the project never materialized. About half the SSC scientists left the field of physics, according to a 1994 survey by Science magazine, some to become analysts in the financial industry. Many took a loss on homes sold in a sudden buyer’s market.
Overbudget, the SSC had been on shaky ground for at least a year before the plug was pulled. Design began in 1983, and then Pres. Ronald Reagan’s science advisor told the design committee to be “bold and greedy.” Reagan approved the project in 1987, encouraging physicists to “throw deep.” (Early names for the collider included the “Ronald Reagan Accelerator,” the “Desertron” (because it was so large it could only be built in the U.S. Southwest), and even the “Gippertron.”)
Originally estimated to cost $4.4 billion, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to kill the project in the summer of 1992, when costs had risen to $8.25 billion, but it was saved by the Senate, although a $100-million cut below requested funds put the project further behind schedule, increasing its costs even more. By the fall of 1993 the estimated cost had risen to a minimum of $11 billion (equivalent to $18 billion today), in part because administrative overhead proved larger than anticipated, and refined calculations of expected beam losses lead to a magnet redesign. (There were to be about 10,000 of them in the ring.) The latter’s increased cost, about $2 billion, could have been avoided by accepting a smaller ring and its resulting lower energy, but that idea was rejected by upper scientific and academic management.
But not all of the project’s costs were included in the initial estimates, according to a DoE report completed four years after the ax came down. About $500 million for detectors, $400 million for operations needed before the lab was finished, $60 million for land purchases and $118 million for DoE project management were excluded from cost estimates. Crucial to projects of such a size, a project cost and scheduling system was never fully implemented, concealing substantial cost overruns, according to the report.
“The Department of Energy was looking for a new level of project management when they embarked on supercollider,” says Michael Riordan, a science historian who is a lead author of the forthcoming Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider. “They did not trust they could get that from the high-energy physics community, and I think they were partially correct in that.”
Foreign funds that never came
It was always expected that $2.6 billion in funds from foreign governments and from the accelerator’s home state would supplement DoE dollars. Although Texas did promise $900 million, and deliver $400 million before the project’s cancellation, none of the seven countries that DoE officials looked to for the rest came up with money, except for a $50 million pledge from India.
From the beginning officials seemed conflicted about the project’s goals. Riordan wrote that at a 1987 press conference, the day after Reagan’s go-ahead, “Secretary of Energy John Herrington told reporters that the SSC would be ‘an American project [with] American leadership,’ but at the same time the DoE also intended ‘to seek maximum cost-sharing funding from other countries.’” Such nationalistic rhetoric tamped enthusiasm from Canada, Europe, and Japan when DoE went looking for financial pledges.
In Europe maintaining success at the CERN laboratory was the priority, after its 1983 discoveries of the W and Z bosons responsible for weak interactions, and it would have made little sense to collaborate on a machine larger than the Large Hadron Collider they were then considering. Despite the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 Russia’s focus and funds went elsewhere; the end of the Cold War also repurposed attitudes in the U.S., reducing emphasis on big, technological science projects that displayed national might. The SSC also competed for funding with the development of the International Space Station, including the Johnson Space Center and other NASA operations in Texas.
That left Japan as a major target for foreign funding. Delegations began visiting Japan as early as 1984, but tensions over Tokyo’s inroads into the U.S. automobile market often got in the way, as did U.S. requests that Japan establish quotas for importation of U.S. auto parts. By 1991 Pres. George H. W. Bush’s popularity was falling, and the Japanese were not convinced of U.S. commitment to the SSC. The accelerator was to feature prominently in Japan–U.S. observances of the 50th anniversary of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, but Bush’s trip to Japan was delayed as trade tensions mounted. With the tenor of the relationship in flux, high-level talks on the SSC came to nothing, and Bush’s visit to Japan in early 1992, where the Japanese expected the U.S. president to directly ask Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa for SSC funding, ended with Bush’s unfortunate and embarrassing regurgitation on Miyazawa. Noting that Bush’s reelection looked increasingly unlikely, Japan postponed a decision on the SSC. And despite expressing support for it as a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton and his administration never gave much support to the project.
What should the U.S. have done differently? Burton Richter, the Nobel laureate who was then director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (now known as the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) in California, says “it was a very bad mistake to seek funding only after the design parameters of the project were determined.”
There was also infighting among subfields of U.S. physics, as condensed matter physicists were especially concerned that the SSC would drain funding from other specialties. Many physicists spent at least a year grieving and venting their disappointment and anger in public, especially in Physics Today, the U.S. magazine devoted to covering the field. When the SSC was finally canceled, the late Rustum Roy, professor of materials sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, expressed his joy to the New York Times. “This comeuppance for high-energy physics was long overdue.” Roy said. “There is an acute oversupply of scientists in the United States,” which he and others said was the educational system’s responsibility to fix.
Richter, now director emeritus at SLAC, thinks the bitterness between subfields of physics has faded, and that scientists learned a valuable lesson: “Once a project is approved, shut up.”
A lack of will
It was not just physics that lost out when the SSC was canceled. There had been tremendous support from the state of Texas and from the local community, and their enthusiasm came to naught. Some lost land rights that went to construction of the tunnel, and dozens of homes were moved for building construction, but there was little of the bitterness that might be expected today. “There was a great feeling of support from the local people,” says Roy Schwitters, professor of physics at The University of Texas at Austin who was the SSC’s director for its last five (and most significant) years, “even from those who lost their homes. They liked the idea that the country did super, far-out things,” he added. Local schools welcomed the collider, and lab scientists set up cosmic-ray monitors in classrooms to teach the basics of particle science (with plans to later demonstrate that no harmful radiation was coming from the accelerator). “I think it was a tragedy for the country, and certainly for high-energy physics,” Schwitters says. “It’s almost removed the possibility—the vision—that you can build really new major projects when the scientific community gets behind and supports them.”
Some see an even larger picture in the SSC’s demise. “You can blame lots of people,” says Nicholas Samios, former director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, “but it was clearly a lack of will. We always got things done. It turned a getting-things-done society into a conservative, play-it-safe, no-risk society,” Samios laments. “We’re not made of the right stuff anymore.”
Today the SSC buildings are occupied by Waxahachie chemical manufacturer Magnablend. Access shafts have been filled in, and what tunnel remains collects rainwater. Amidst endless budget problems, Congress flits with large science projects like the James Webb Space Telescope, canceling and then reversing as costs and completion dates lengthen—scenarios eerily familiar to the SSC’s tragic path. The European-based CERN was the major focus of the 2013 physics Nobel to Peter Higgs and François Englert, and it is Japan, not the U.S., talking of hosting an International Linear Collider.
Despite fears at the time, the SSC did not herald the end of U.S. particle physics, by any means. (In 1993 the Division of Physics of Beams made up 3.4 percent of the American Physical Society’s membership; this year it is 2.3 percent, a decline of 361 members.) Physics faces a host of new questions, such as the nature of dark energy, the identity of dark matter and the subtle properties of neutrinos, not all of which can be answered by ever more powerful accelerators. But others can, such as the exact properties of the Higgs boson and the ever-tantalizing possibility of supersymmetry. The current design of the LHC places a hard energy limit of 16 TeV (8 TeV in each beam), and no physics above that threshold can appear, no matter how high its beam intensities. The SSC would have punched at a higher weight.
Yet Riordan believes the U.S. made a mistake by reaching for such a high energy at the SSC, when a lower energy might have discovered the Higgs particle, as recent experience has confirmed. “The high-energy physics community insisted on the largest possible machine, so large it didn’t have the skills to manage it,” he says. “American physicists wanted to leapfrog the Europeans and reestablish their leadership in high-energy physics—which was a political reason, not a physics reason.”
Many believe accelerator physics still has an important role to play, such as with a linear collider that will by necessity be a worldwide effort. “I do not believe that we can make significant progress without also pushing back the frontier of high energy,” Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg wrote in an essay titled “The Crisis of Big Science” in The New York Review of Books last year. “So in the next decade we may see the search for the laws of nature slow to a halt, not to be resumed again in our lifetimes.”
The SSC was an epic project that ended in failure. The U.S. has yet to stride again its own once prominent footsteps; but perhaps worse, it no longer dares to dream in color. Whatever the future for high-energy physics the U.S. and the world, the hulking beast that would have been the Superconducting Super Collider will not soon be forgotten.
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