Faster, Stronger, Earlier: The American Particle Accelerator That Never Was

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Three times stronger than the Large Hadron Collider, it would've been completed in 1999. Why wasn't it finished?

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Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Perhaps the most amazing part of the discovery -- or almost discovery -- of the Higgs Boson is that the whole thing worked: CERN's Large Hadron Collider was funded, built, turned on. It didn't create black holes. It wasn't sabotaged by the future. And most remarkably, the money didn't run out.

Because the money did run out on an American project: an American supercollider that would've been turned on earlier and would've been stronger than the LHC. It's called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). But first, Kurt Andersen.

In a 2010 Vanity Fair, he marveled at how, despite the "hyper-capitalist flibbertigibbet day and age," the LHC was constructed:

[The LHC] was conceived a quarter-century ago, was given the green light in 1994, and has been under construction for the last 13 years, the product of tens of millions of man-hours. It's also gargantuan: a circular tunnel 17 miles around, punctuated by shopping-mall-size subterranean caverns and fitted out with more than $9 billion worth of steel and pipe and cable.

For $12 billion, we could've had our own.

In the early '80s, an American committee proposed the creation of the SSC -- nicknamed the Desertron. The SSC would've had a collision energy of 40 Tera-electrovolts. The LHC, by comparison, has a collision strength of about 14 Tera-electrovolts.* The project, supported by Presidents Reagan and Bush, was approved in the late '80s, and soon after scientists chose Texas as the project's site. Construction began in 1991.

Then the economy crashed, Clinton won, and a budget-cutting Congress took office.

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Jim Merithew/Wired.com

President Clinton -- newly-elected -- actually supported the SSC, and contemporary reports credit that support with winning him Louisiana in the 1992 election. But representatives claimed that the government could not afford both the SSC and NASA's large science project, the International Space Station. The House cancelled the project twice only to see the Senate resurrect it. But finally -- in late October, 1993, with a 264-to-159 vote -- the House killed it for good.

"I'm not saying there isn't a lot of elegant science that can be gleaned from this, but that's what it is: elegant," Senator Dale Bumpers, a Democrat, told the New York Times in March 1993. "We can't afford elegance now."

"It's terrible for high-energy physics and harmful to the nation's ability to cooperate in science on an international scale," Dr. Sidney D. Drell said in June of 1992, following the first House vote against the project. That story begins:

Canceling the proposed supercollider atom smasher being built in Texas would be a devastating loss for science and an abdication of American leadership in physics, scientists said today.

This was the moment when the American abdication of international leadership in science began, right at the beginning of the end of history. And we didn't lose the chance to own some nationalistic toy, but rather to serve all other nations, and all people, with a gift toward understanding. While we still have most of the world's best research universities, we're no longer really funding the calling-card 20th century sciences -- space and physics.

The SSC was projected to be completed in 1999. After it was canceled, greater Dallas-Fort Worth went into a small recession because the funds and workers disappeared. The land where the Desertron was to stand was deeded to the local Texas county -- which finally succeeded in selling it off, to a chemical company, seven months ago.

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Jim Merithew/Wired.com

* Correction: This story originally omitted the correct prefix for these energies.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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