Texas scientists: It could have been us…

It seems I’m not the only one to notice this aspect of the Higgs boson story.

Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) have unveiled the discovery of a tiny particle Wednesday that may help them understand the nature and even the origin of the universe. It’s a breakthrough Texas lost its chance to try for almost two decades ago, when Congress defunded the costly project…

The SSC was first proposed in 1983, and construction began in 1991. If completed, it would have been larger in circumference and capable of producing higher energy than the LHC, according to experts who worked on it. But after nearly $2 billion had been spent on the project, Congress pulled the plug in 1993…

Defunding meant not only delayed experiments and potential discoveries, but also a loss of jobs in Texas. Scientists, engineers, designers and accountants had all been making a living by working on the SSC, though many physicists were able to transition smoothly to working on the European project, Schwitters said. 

We’re not just exporting jobs overseas, we’re handing over our technical expertise and ability to manage large, complex, high-tech projects. From a profit perspective, it’s a no-brainer: inch by inch, we’re trading leadership, innovation, and infrastructure for quicker, easier profits. If we had brains, though, we might notice that in the process we’re sowing the seeds of our own decline, selling our place as erstwhile “leaders of the free world” in exchange for a quick buck today.


  1. ned champlain says

    Yes, We could have built a collider at the cost of 3 bombers. Shaking my head wondering why we are so stupid.

    • cathyw says

      Three bombers are easy for a congresscritter to sell to the low-information voters back home – “Support the troops! America #1! Bombers FTW!”. The rationale for the SSC wouldn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

      • d cwilson says

        Military contractors figured out a long time ago that if they spread their manufacturing around to enough states, they could virtually guarantee enough allies in Congress to keep the money flowing.

  2. The Apostate says

    I was born in the US, but I moved over to the UK to start my undergraduate Physics degree. I have since continued on through my MSc and am currently working on my PhD, also in Physics. A lot of people have asked me over the years why I moved away, but one of the biggest reasons is the myopic policy towards foundational science in the US.

    Why fund primary, secondary, and university education when you can fund a war? Why pay for particle accelerators, national labs, and blue-sky research when you can cut taxes for the wealthiest? Well, now we’re starting to see the effects, and they’re not pleasant.

  3. julian says

    Were there any pressing concerns at the time that might have lead government to try and cut cost where it could or is this what it looks like, another example of US politicians basing their decisions on returns by the next election cycle rather than the long term investments that provide long reaching returns and promise?

    • says

      Not particularly. The cost estimates had tripled from the original amount, which didn’t help, but that doesn’t stop Congress from funding military ventures. The Soviet Union had recently collapsed, which was cited as a reason the US didn’t need to maintain leadership in science (We won! time to sit back on our laurels.). It was also competing with the International Space Station, which I suppose was sexier PR-wise.

      • Reginald Selkirk says

        The cost estimates had tripled from the original amount…

        Changing something as basic as the diameter of your beam pipe after the tunnel boring has already begun is not a symptom of a well-planned project.

      • F says

        No. But that speaks to the kind of management that the gov put on the project in the first place. There was a lot of bad planning, yes. But the cost isn’t squat compared to military R&D and tooling up, let alone production of weapons of mass destruction we don’t need and foreign adventures that only make things worse. Or the costs of spying on US citizens, especially now, so this is a bit of an anachronistic example, but still an example of what we’d rather spend money on.

        The Tevatron was also decommissioned a year early.

      • plutosdad says

        Not to mention if they did it in Illinois like many wanted, there might have been better people in charge with easy access to experts involved in and who helped construct Fermilab. But of course it had to go to Texas to win an election.

        It was just not taken seriously from the start.

    • d cwilson says

      At the time, there was a lot of pressure to balance the budget (this was before Bush II and Cheney decided “deficits don’t matter”). Eventually, the debate in Congress came down to a decision to fund either the SSC or the International Space Station. The SSC lost.

  4. Alverant says

    I was a physics major in college hoping to work in quantum mechanics. I hoped to get a job there. When funding was canceled I used that as an excuse to switch majors. Actually it was too much math and memorization. I got the theory down pat, just not the details. Teacher said half my questions were insightful the other half showed a complete lack of understanding of the formulas.

    Can’t win them all. At least I didn’t have to go to Texas.

  5. Richard T says

    Well, if folk like the Governors of Louisiana and Texas have their way, your kids will be too ill educated to be any use except as cannon fodder for the neocons and as creationist preachers hastening your downward spiral as an intellectual power. Doubtless the Chinese can hardly contain their scorn by laughter.

  6. baal says

    We also let the Chinese essentially corner the entire world market in rare earths needed for solar panels. The Chinese also went after the associated IP and, after setting up mass production on solar panels, they sold them under cost (after already being a slightly less advanced but cheaper to make panel) to kill competitors.

    We could have been world leaders in the solar tech business which currently well under 70 bill (google-fu) but growing.

    US politics is totally borked. We’ve been squandering some obvious opportunities (the SSC & solar panels) for largely political reasons. My current hobby horse example is the combination of lots of ‘deferred maintenance’ infrastructure (oh, I don’t know, like the nation power grid? or bridges in Minnesota), out of work people, cheapest building materials in a long time. You’d think we could line up those three details to make life better for everyone but it’s a heresy to contemplate by large swaths of the FEDGOV.

  7. magistramarla says

    Personally, I’m glad that the particle was found in Europe. If it had been found in Texas, with today’s political climate there, can you imagine how the politicians there would be reacting about now? I would fear for the lives of the scientists and wouldn’t be surprised if there was an explosion of the SSC.
    Sad to say, but I’m happy that those scientists are safely in Europe.

    • Corvus illustris says

      Nah, the politicians would just do a 180 (pi radians for us purists) and crow about what a great scientific center Texas is.

  8. Mark says

    Texas don’t need no collider thingy, they’s already knows how the unEverse done started…God done it, it says so right thar in the BIBLE, ya heathens.

  9. Haydn Sikh says

    Some of those post-docs ended up on Wall Street–they transferred their expertise in manipulating gigantic databases into generating more & more abstruse financial vehicles, which large investment banks gambled more & more virtual money on, right up until the financial collapse, which of course, was all the fault of poor people lying on their loan applications.

  10. Kilian Hekhuis says

    As a European, I’m tempted to be a little offended by the American patriotism seeping through in this post. It’s about progress in science, methinks, not whodunnit.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      You’d be entirely within your rights to be offended, IMO. Still, what bothers me more is not so much the USA failing to maintain a position of dominance as it is the US establishing a trend of self-destructive hostility towards science and even intelligence. We’re already exporting militant creationism to the rest of the world. I’d be happy to come in second place, or third, or whatever as long as we were all doing our best and headed in the right direction. But I don’t have the impression that, as a culture, we’re really in the race at all any more. Individual Americans, yes of course. But not the culture.

    • Corvus illustris says

      Some of the chauvinism that you perceive (and it is offensive to US people too) comes from the long quote in the original post, which was taken from the linked article in a blog specifically concerned with Texas. Not all of us are that jingoistic. (Still, I wish one of our people had knocked off the Fermat proposition 8-).)

  11. camelspotter says

    Thinking about technology moving from one country to another reminded me of this piece of ancient history where Britain sent its best technology across the Atlantic to allow radar units and the like to be mass produced in the US.

  12. anthrosciguy says

    At one point, if I remember the sums correctly, the total cost for the proposed supercollider in the USA was $5 billion. In other words, about one week’s worth of fighting the latest Iraq war (and we’ll pretend there was no inflation in the years between the supercollider being shot down and Iraq being shot up).

  13. Seymour says

    …We’re not just exporting jobs overseas, we’re handing over our technical expertise and ability to manage large, complex, high-tech projects….

    Be fair, it isn’t as if Europeans can’t manage large projects without good old yankee know-how, we have been doing it for a long time.

    The rest of the post is spot on and your politicians seemed to have infected ours with short term views.

  14. coragyps says

    Well, in defense of rednecks everywhere, “Superconducting Supercollider” was adopted as the nom de ring of a pro wrassler. I don’t think “Hadron” is in that audience’s vocabulary.

    Hell, “vocabulary” may not be in heir vocabulary.

  15. Loren Petrich says

    Even worse, the SSC would have gotten to higher energies than the LHC. The LHC was limited to what one can get when reusing the tunnels for an earlier accelerator, LEP.

    The LHC started off at 3 TeV/proton, now does 4 TeV/proton, and will be upgraded to 7.5 TeV/proton.

    But the SSC would have done 20 TeV/proton, giving it a greater reach into the parameter space of supersymmetric extensions of the Standard Model.

    1 TeV is over a thousand times the rest-mass energy of a proton.

    Since protons are composite, the available energy for creating new particles is about 1/3 of the total.

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