We Need the Supercollider Now
Chris Quigg

Your recent editorial “Rethinking the super collider” presents a cynical view of this initiative as an exercise in pork-barrel politics and patronizes the citizens of DuPage County by portraying them as interested only in the influx of billions to the local economy. The objectionable tone aside, all the arguments you advance for delaying the project are wrong.

LET US BEGIN BY recalling what the super collider is for. Over the past 20 years, elementary particle physicists have constructed a modem equivalent of the periodic table of the elements, a classification of the basic constituents of matter and the interactlons among them. To learn what lies behind this modem “periodic table” and to give us the means to put that knowledge to humane and productive use, new and more incisive experiments will be required in the 1990s. The most technically assured and cost-effective instrument for carrying out these investigations in a timely way is the supercollider recommended for construction by President Reagan in January.

The super collider makes extensive use of the benefits of superconductivity first realized on a large scale in the Fermilab Tevatron. Recent developments in new superconducting materials may well be revolutionary for technology in the long term, and in any case merit the admiration of us all. If the new materials made possible enhanced performance or reduced cost without sacrificing reliability, they would be incorporated at once into the super collider design. The super collider designers have carefully studied the economics of changing from very low (liquid helium) temperature operation to higher (liquid nitrogen) temperature operation for the super collider magnets, assuming that some new miraculous superconducting substance would make this a possibility.

A substantial amount, perhaps $200 million, could be saved in refrigeration costs. This is the potential savlngs cited by the Daily Journal. However, it is not the whole story. At liquid helium temperatures, residual gases (mostly hydrogen) are frozen onto the inner surface of the collider beam tube in the same way a moist finger sticks to a cold surface in a freezer. In this way they are removed from circulation and so do not spoil the exquisite vacuum needed for super collider operation.

At the higher temperatures new superconducting materials might permit, this sticking does not occur, so other means must be found to attain a very high vacuum. These other means have their own price, which for the super collider is about the same as the $200 million that might be saved on refrigeration. No substantial savings can be projected.

DELAY IN INITIATING the project brings its own costs as well. Inflation is a fact of life, even in the current, relatively benign, economic climate. Pick the inflation rate you wish and you may calculate the cost of delaying a $4 billion project by a year, or two, or three. Each year's postponement would cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Those who advocate waiting to begin the project have an obligation to explain what specific new information they would wait for and how they expect to overcome the effects of cost inflation.

The claim that superconductivity is a product of practical science is not supported by the facts. The phenomenon was first observed in 1911, in what could not at the time have seemed a practical research effort. Even the recent advances in new superconducting materials did not come as a result of applied research directed to a specific end product. Indeed, at the recent House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on high temperature superconductors, Deputy Undersecretary Kerber, who oversees the acquisition of research and advanced technology for the Department of Defense, made a strong plea for increased support of fundamental research. He told the committee that two years ago DOD had made an extensive study of new technologies and had listed 257 which held promise for defense. Superconductivity was not on the list. The point he made was that even the best informed advisors cannot predict where the next breakthrough will come.

The “practical men” who, like your editorialist, claim that we must, for the good of our ebbing economy, invest in applied research to the exclusion of adventurous fundamental research, should study the past. Suppose in the 1950s similarly practical folk had mounted a national program to improve the printing press, instead of supporting frivolous research in atomic and molecular physics. Would we have the laser printer, global newspapers and desktop publishing, not to mention all the other practical and scientific benefits of lasers?

MY INSISTENCE ON the value of fundamental research is not to deny the benefits of applied research. In contrast to the time lag between a scientific discovery and its practical application, basic science immediately puts to use the latest technology, often advancing it in the process. Both basic science and applied technology are vital to the scientific enterprise and to our economy.

Your editorial suggests that a delay in undertaking the super collider could be used to recruit foreign participation in the project. The ideas of high-energy physics indeed have no nationality and the field already enjoys a high degree of international collaboration. The flags of many nations at the entrance to the central laboratory building at Fermilab have a significance that goes far beyond the common research goals of a few scientists. There are strong indications that other nations will join us in building the super collider, but only if we demonstrate that we are serious by making a commitment to the project. If we temporize, potential partners will be encouraged to look elsewhere for scientific cooperation. If we are to be the leaders, we must lead.

While we debate national priorities, the scientific questions that motivate the construction of the super collider remain open and pressing. These go to the heart of our understanding of what the world is made of and how the world works; where we have come from and where we are going. So we may have available for the mid-1990s the research instrument we need and the intellectual environment of a great scientific institution in which it will reside, we must proceed now with a commitment to the super collider.

Dr. Quigg, a physicist, is on leave from Fermilab. He is currently at the University of California at Berkeley, where he is deputy director of the team designing the Superconducting Super Collider.

Published in the Wheaton Daily Journal, Wednesday, July 1, 1987.