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SSC was a waste of money? July 27, 2007

Posted by apetrov in Particle Physics, Physics, Science.
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I recently read an article on CNN called “Five of the largest, oddest and most useless state projects.” Now, I was fully expecting to read about the bridge in Alaska that goes nowhere or similar projects that made no sense. And indeed, the top five listed projects included the limestone-themed Disney-style park in Indiana (hmm…) and Teton Dam in southeastern Idaho. But I was surprized to see that, according to CNN, the number three on that list is… Superconducting SuperCollider or SSC! Well, it was indeed big. But oddest and useless? Here is what this article said:

The mess with Texas: Superconducting that’s less than super

The great idea: Build a miracle machine that can replicate the Big Bang, help treat life-threatening illnesses, and maybe even unfold the mysteries of the universe.

The great big problem:
You get what you pay for — and miracle machines cost way, way too much.

Cost to taxpayers: Roughly $12 billion — and the lives of billions of innocent atoms.

Few government projects have ever been announced with the level of fanfare reserved for the 1980s Superconducting Super Collider.

Housed in a 54-mile underground tunnel beneath Waxahachie, Texas, the Super Collider was designed to accelerate beams of subatomic particles to fantastic speeds and then crash the particles into one another, purportedly generating huge amounts of energy. Advocates believed the machine would be able to simulate the conditions present during the Big Bang, thus allowing scientists to gain new insights into the very nature of matter.

But many Super Collider fans made even bolder statements about the machine’s capabilities, pointing out that other devices using similar technology had been used to treat cancer and learn more about HIV.

As potential uses for the machine grew, however, so did the cost, ballooning from an original estimate of less than $5 billion to just under $12 billion. Finally, in the midst of the 1993 budget-cutting boom, Congress pulled the plug on the project, with less than one-third of the tunnel finished.

For a while, it was used to store Styrofoam cups, but then it was sold off to private businesses for pennies on the dollar. Although scientists (and the citizens of Waxahachie) still mourn the loss of this major research center, there are several other machines in the world that do basically the same thing on a smaller scale. They’re called particle accelerators, and the largest one is a mere 5 miles in diameter.”

Now, honestly, I think the author has absolutely no idea what he is talking about (please read here or here for more accurate info). So the only good piece information that I extracted from this opus is this: I always wanted to know what they did with the tunnel aftte the accelerator was canceled. I’ve heard rumors that some company grew mushrooms in there. But Styrofoam cups… it sounds more prosaic and it is probably just that. Pity.

Comments»

1. Anonymous - July 28, 2007

It would be good to try to get Steven Weinberg, Val Fitch, Jim Cronin, etc., to write them a short letter explaining why it was not a waste of money (but rather a very valuable, but mismanaged, project).

2. A - July 29, 2007

“there are several other machines in the world that do basically the same thing on a smaller scale” – meaning they aren’t nearly as useful as the SSC would have been. So instead Europe gets the glory and the moeny and jobs with the new Large Hadron Collider.

3. apetrov - August 2, 2007

Anonymous: I don’t think that this is needed — these people wrote not a short letter, but tons and tons of documents with explicit designs and calculations to justify buidling of SSC. See, for example, here: http://www.hep.net/ssc/new/repository.html

4. apetrov - August 2, 2007

A: Well, I hope LHC is useful and will discover something beyond SM Higgs. But I’m basically with you on that.

5. Thomas Love - August 31, 2007

Years ago I drove through the Texas town where the SSC was being built. It seemed that every other business was named supercolllider something. Most interesting was “SuperCollider Collision Repair”, an auto repair shop but I could visualize them taking all the outgoing particles and putting them back together. Stopping the project cost the local businesses a bundle just in new names and new signs!

6. apetrov - September 14, 2007

Thomas: That is absolutely hilarious! I wish you had a picture of that repair shop…


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