SCIENCE

Atoms in collision

JOHN BARBER October 14 1985
SCIENCE

Atoms in collision

JOHN BARBER October 14 1985

Atoms in collision

SCIENCE

Some scientists have compared the Superconducting Super Collider with the Great Pyramid of Egypt. But Nobel Prize laureate Sheldon Glashow of Harvard University, for one, called the proposed machine “one of the most ambitious projects ever conceived by our species.” Certainly, the sheer physical size of the project appears to justify the superlatives. A large concrete tube formed into a ring 50 to 60 miles in circumference, it will cost the U.S. government from $3 to $6 billion (U.S.) to build. But unlike other great public structures, the underground collider will be invisible to ordinary people. And its function—smashing subatomic particles travelling at close to the speed of light—will remain incomprehensible to all but a tiny scientific elite.

The collider is still at least two years from construction, but its proponents already are praising its virtues in anticipation of a tough congressional budget fight. Because the machine will create “events” with 20 times more energy than current colliders are capable of producing, they say that it will help to shed new light on how the universe works and what holds it together. Said Stanford University professor Stanley Wojcicki, one of the collider’s designers: “The whole high-energy physics community feels that this is a logical and necessary next step.”

Many scientists say that the conventional theories of physics, which were developed with the help of smaller colliders, will break down when tested with the big machine. But for his part, John Moffat of the University of Toronto, a leading theoretical physicist, noted that the new machine cannot guarantee the emergence of any “new physics.” He said that physicists recently became excited about that possibility because of “all sorts of weird events” at the world’s largest collider near Geneva, Switzerland. But, he added, “the latest news is that they didn’t see anything at all and that the new physics doesn’t exist.” Wojcicki agreed that the new machine will promise no certain breakthroughs but argued that building it is still worthwhile. Said Wojcicki: “It will help answer the questions that all civilizations have been asking for thousands of years. Part of the soul of this country would be lost if we stopped asking.”

—JOHN BARBER in Toronto