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What Cost the Supercollider?

For decades, increasingly expensive particle-accelerator projects have been advocated in language almost identical to that now being used to promote the $6 billion superconducting supercoflider (SSC), including promises of "scientific leadership," "spin-offs," of technological and medical "breakthroughs," and so forth. But there is only meager evidence that past promises have been fulfilled and that present promises are any more credible. In a story on the SSC, The New York Times on January 19 s

By | February 23, 1987

For decades, increasingly expensive particle-accelerator projects have been advocated in language almost identical to that now being used to promote the $6 billion superconducting supercoflider (SSC), including promises of "scientific leadership," "spin-offs," of technological and medical "breakthroughs," and so forth. But there is only meager evidence that past promises have been fulfilled and that present promises are any more credible. In a story on the SSC, The New York Times on January 19 states that nuclear magnetic resonance imaging for medical purposes is an offshoot of accelerator technology. That statement is false, as was an earlier statement that fast-timing technology owes its origin to high-energy physics.

Of course we need to put our best foot forward in the interests of science and technology, as the advocates of the SSC repeatedly state (see "Criteria for Scientific Choices," by Alvin M. Weinberg, Physics Today, March 1964). But that may be just the reason that we should not build the SSC if it will divert scientific manpower—whose supply is severely limited— from tasks with far more promise of making substantial contributions to our scientific and technological development. Japan spends nothing like the vast sums we have spent on particle research. West Germany, which also spends little, is the only country that has an inexpensive, cost-effective in-hospital accelerator facility for the treatment of cancer with fast neutrons—a goal which has thus far eluded our own accelerator establishment.

To many young physicists today, hunting for quarks with a gigantic accelerator may seem much more glamorous than doing materials research with bench-top equipment. But if we continue to plough scarce man-power into costly, glamorous projects to the neglect of those with more mundane purposes, we may continue to not find quarks while useful new materials are being discovered by others. We should not contemplate a project on the scale of the SSC without the most careful evaluation of its consequences for our overall scientific-technological effort.

Nor should we do it alone. Europe's Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) provides a model for successful international cooperation and joint management of super-expensive facilities that makes much more sense than a project within our Department of Energy. Making SSC the hub of a new international scientific partnership, emphasizing the role of the newly emerging Pacific Rim countries, would make SSC a much more interesting enterprise. If we cannot find partners for the SSC project, that would be a good reason for not doing it at all.

—Lawrence Cranberg
1205 Constant Springs Drive
Austin, TX 78746

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