Texas Scientists Regret Loss of Higgs Boson Quest

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The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) had been under construction near Waxahachie, Texas, until Congress defunded it.
The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) had been under construction near Waxahachie, Texas, until Congress defunded it.

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.  

Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland have been searching for the Higgs boson, a fundamental, yet to-date elusive, subatomic particle, for years. On Wednesday, they announced, that they have found a new particle that matches the description of the Higgs boson, though confirmation is still needed. Decades ago, a similar machine called the Superconducting Super Collider, was nearly built in Waxahachie, 30 miles south of Dallas. But the project stalled, and so did Texas' hopes for the Higgs boson. Today, the site is being turned into a chemical blending facility.

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.

"It came as quite a shock in 1993 when the thing was cancelled," Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an interview with KUT News. Weinberg served on the site-selection committee shortly after coming to the University of Texas in 1982. "I couldn’t believe it at first,” he said of the cancellation.

Roy Schwitters, former director of the SSC laboratory who is now a physics professor at the University of Texas, has no doubt that the SSC would have led to the discovery of the Higgs boson. He believes it could have been discovered even a decade earlier.

"This is the discovery everyone planned around," Schwitters said. "It's at the core of our current theories of what matter is and how it works. This was the high priority measurement to be made first thing out. There's no question it would have happened."

Weinberg said that the SSC would have been the most powerful collider in the world. The SSC had a big head-start on the CERN machine,” Weinberg explained. “It would have been completed a decade earlier, and since it had three times the energy, things would have gone faster.”

But increasing costs, a desire to cut spending, competition from other scientific programs and a host of other factors led Congress to defund the SSC. Schwitters said he isn't sure if anything could have saved it.

"Personally, I think the country at that point wanted a better justification for why taxpayer dollars were being spent on what seemed like a satiric science at the time," he said.

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.  

In January, Magnablend, a company that makes customized chemicals for industries like oil and gas or agriculture, bought the SSC facility in order to turn it into a plant that blends chemicals. The company has begun renovations and expects the site to be fully operational next year, according to Jaime Castro, the executive assistant to the president at the company.

As for the Higgs boson, Weinberg, speaking on Tuesday before the CERN announcement, said that the breakthrough would be bittersweet for some American physicists. “This is a discovery that could have been and should have been made in America,” Weinberg said. “We are regretful that the United States Congress decided in this instance to turn its back on pushing forward the frontier of fundamental knowledge.”

KUT Austin contributed reporting for this article. 

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