Demolition Derby for Protons Falls to the Budget Ax


Blame it on the Higgs boson.

You might not know what it is, but until this past week, the U.S. government was planning to spend $8.25 billion to build a machine to find it, if it exists. That, and settle some other intriguing questions about the fundamental nature of matter and energy.

The House of Representatives this week voted to pull the plug on the superconducting supercollider, a 54-mile underground oval tunnel planned for construction beneath the sweltering plains near Waxahachie, Texas.

Touted as the largest scientific instrument in history, the mammoth project was designed to accelerate two streams of protons in opposite directions around the beltway-sized oval tunnel, trigger a collision and carefully record the resulting fireworks.

Among the sparks, scientists hoped to find the Higgs boson, a sub-atomic particle that some physicists think may give matter its mass.

Discovery of this cousin of the light-carrying photon would lend strong support to the dominant theory about the structure of all matter, called the "standard model" by physicists. If physicists can't find the elusive particle, whose existence was first predicted by the British physicist Peter Higgs, the standard model might be due for major repairs or even a trade-in.

Supporters like to describe the collider's mission in broader, fuzzier, terms -- saying it will mimic the conditions near the birth of the universe, advance scientific understanding of the murky sub-atomic realm and help keep America from suffering a brain drain as engineers and scientists trek to foreign lands to build new colliders or do advanced research.

But at the heart of it all is the search for the Higgs particle, or particles very much like it.

The project has been controversial from the start, due to its staggering expense. And things have only gotten worse: It has been plagued by cost overruns, charges of pork-barrel politics, frustrated efforts to get the Japanese and other foreign governments to help pay the bill and an increasing disenchantment in the U.S. with Big Science.

Lost in the recent shouting over the pricetag, though, is the ostensible reason it was planned in the first place -- the science.

Barry Blumenfeld, professor of physics at the Johns Hopkins University, is one of about 600 scientists at universities and research labs around the world who are members of the Solenoidal Detector Collaboration, the group designing the first major experimental apparatus planned for the SSC.

The solenoidal detector is basically a large superconducting magnet filled with devices to detect and record data from the proton-proton collisions in the supercollider.

As might be expected, he supports the project. Sure it's expensive, he concedes.

"You can't deny that, it's true," he said. "But it's a question of: Can this country invest something for the future? Does the country want to stay in the forefront of research? Does it want to be a world leader?"

Being a world leader in high-energy physics means building high-energy atom smashers, something other countries, such as China and Italy, seem increasingly interested in doing. The Texas supercollider, in fact, would be 20 times more powerful than the current leader, a proton-antiproton collider at Fermilab near Chicago.

But critics point out that atom smashers are pure research tools. They have nothing to do with constructing weapons or nuclear-power plants, for example. Occasionally, high-energy physicists go on to make contributions in other fields: One adapted collider technology to invent the CAT scan x-ray machine. But that is rare.

So many question why the taxpayers should pay $8.25 billion to bash protons together.

"That's always a very, very tough question," Dr. Blumenfeld said. "Different people will give you different answers. Will it build a better mousetrap to understand how a Z particle gets its mass? No. But in terms of being a scientific stimulus to the country, I think it does help."

If we decide we can afford it, the device could teach us a few things.

Most of us learned in chemistry class that the world is made up of atoms. Atoms, of course, consist of a nucleus, made up of protons and neutrons nestled together, circled by orbiting electrons. One electron circling one proton makes hydrogen. Eight protons, eight neutrons and eight electrons makes oxygen.

This was the view scientists reached by 1932. Things were simple. Life was good. Three bits of matter, it was thought, were the fundamental building blocks of nature.

Almost immediately, this simple triad started to come unglued. Physicists studying cosmic rays and, later, those using atom smashers, found dozens, then scores and finally several hundred exotic bits of matter.

These new things grew into groups, then families, then clans. Weird names were coined: baryons, mesons, leptons, muons, the tau, neutrinos, pions, quarks. Every particle was found to have an anti-particle. Things got very messy indeed.

Physicists managed to get a rein on some of this chaos by 1968, when they came to accept the theory that most subatomic matter is made of very tiny, and seemingly indivisible, bits dubbed quarks.

Today, physicists have what they call the "standard model." This is the notion that there are 12 fundamental particles of matter (six types of quark and six leptons, a category including the familiar electron); four natural forces (including gravity and electromagnetism); and 12 particles that carry force (including the photon, which carries light).

But the standard model has a few flaws. One is that it can't explain how particles have mass. Many are very light, and might be squeezed into the standard theory. But the so-called W and Z particles, discovered about 10 years ago at the European Center for Nuclear Research near Geneva, posed a special problem because they are very massive.

Dr. Higgs came to the rescue, with a theory that predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle that carries the force that may fatten up and provide mass to some -- or maybe all -- other sub-atomic particles.

"The Higgs particle is one way to give these other particles mass," Dr. Blumenfeld said. "That might not be the correct explanation. There might be some other explanation which would be searchable for with the Superconductng Supercollider."

Wednesday's House vote isn't the last word. On Thursday, President Bush, who considers himself a Texan, called the SSC "a crucial investment."

"We cannot afford to relinquish our leadership in science and technology," he declared. "Our nation's economic competitiveness and standard of living depend on it."

Mr. Bush, who put $650 million in his 1993 budget request for the SSC, reminded lawmakers that suspending the project could cost 7,800 jobs immediately, more over the seven-year construction schedule. (Tunneling is scheduled to begin in July.)

The Senate, which has traditionally been more sympathetic to the SSC, must also vote on its version of the budget.

But it's an election year, Ross Perot seems to be gaining ground by criticizing the deficit and the collider is an inviting target. Supporters can probably count themselves lucky if Congress authorizes some kind of caretaker funding, to make sure the project can be revived in the next year or so.

If the collider survives the current political hurricane on Capitol Hill, you might think that Dr. Blumenfeld and his colleagues would be anxious to find the Higgs boson. But that's not necessarily the case.

Scientists are often more interested in finding things they don't expect than in finding things they do.

What would be more interesting, Dr. Blumenfeld said, would be to find some strange new particle that challenges the conventional wisdom and opens up a whole new area of inquiry.

"The most boring thing would be to find the Higgs particle and say, 'Yep, there's the Higgs particle, we understand it,' " he said.

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