Web edition: September 26, 2008
In 1993, the U.S. Congress cut off funds for the
Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC. After years of planning, two years of
major construction and $2 billion spent, the most enduring achievement of the
stillborn project was a tunnel from nothing to nowhere near
The SSC would have enabled us to explore nature in more
extreme conditions — higher concentrations of energy — than ever before. It
would have yielded fundamental new insights into the origin of the universe and
the nature of matter, space and time. Thousands of scientists devoted big parts
of their careers to the SSC project.
From the ashes of that debacle, a phoenix now rises. The
Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a roughly equivalent instrument, has begun to
Bigger, faster, smarter than anything previously attempted,
the LHC is modern civilization’s answer to the pyramids of
A consortium of European countries will have spent something
in the neighborhood of $10 billion to build the LHC. (The
As the LHC surveys the territory that the SSC abandoned, the
same discoveries will be made, albeit a decade delayed and datelined
Should Americans take pride in their cleverness, at getting others to do the work and foot the bill? I don’t think so.
Even from a hard-nosed economic perspective, the picture is
far from clear. Most LHC construction work was subcontracted locally, putting
the money right back in circulation. Companies and workers in civil
engineering, cryogenics, magnetism and electronics acquired cutting-edge
expertise and experience. Over the medium-to-long term, building the LHC was
probably a wise investment.
But suppose the LHC really was a net expense for Europe and
the SSC would have been a net expense for
By failing to follow through, we missed a rare opportunity
to make a lasting statement about the sort of people we are (or used to be?) — a
statement that people would continue to hear for as long as people remain
curious about the physical world.
Explorers and immigrants populated
Before long, very likely, we’ll see headlines announcing
that a great discovery — the cosmic molasses that is the origin of mass,
evidence for unified field theories, the quantum dimensions of supersymmetry,
the material that makes the astronomers’ missing matter, superstrings,
braneworlds … or some wonder that escaped the fertile imaginations of
theoreticians — has occurred in Europe, at CERN. All humankind will share in
the discoveries, and all should take pride in them; but Europeans will have
Today there’s much talk about “national greatness,” usually defined in terms of winning wars and imposing our will on foreigners around the world. I think we’d do better to emphasize a different kind of greatness: a greatness that takes us back to our roots, emphasizing exploration, openness and (yes) generosity.
William James spoke of the moral equivalent of war: intense
effort for large goals that can inspire, but need not involve conflict or
destruction. We should aspire to be entrepreneurs in the business of advancing
human knowledge, not free riders; producers, not parasites. We missed a chance
for this sort of national greatness when the SSC became the LHC.
Let’s learn from that mistake. Other opportunities beckon: We could survey our part of the galaxy for Earthlike planets and see if their atmospheres display signs of life, or we could mount a full-scale scientific assault on the aging process, for example. Are we game for some real greatness?
Frank Wilczek of MIT is a Nobel laureate in physics and an incoming member of the Board of Trustees of Society for Science & the Public. frankwilczek.com