Skip to content ↓

Completion of SSC Urged By Physicists

Without the superconducting supercollider (SSC), the field of particle physics cannot go forward, an MIT Nobel laureate told a crowd of about 200 at a forum here last week on the SSC.

Institute Professor Jerome I. Friedman, who made that statement, joined with fellow MIT Nobel laureate Henry W. Kendall and writer-physicist Alan P. Lightman to present several arguments in support of the superconducting supercollider-and basic science in general.

Among the points they made:

The SSC will give scientists the chance to answer critical questions in particle physics and perhaps discover another force of nature; it could lead to important technological innovations much as Faraday's work on electricity and magnetism in the 1800s has led to hydroelectric power plants today; it will reaffirm the nation's commitment to cutting-edge research, and the knowledge gained could change our view of the world (which, Dr. Lightman said, "needs to be periodically shaken up").

In addition, Professor Friedman, who shared the 1990 Nobel prize in physics with Professor Kendall and Richard E. Taylor of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, emphasized that the SSC budget constitutes only six tenths of one percent of the total federal R&D budget. So "the actual cost of the SSC in the grand scheme of things is very small," said Professor Lightman, who is head of the writing program, senior lecturer in physics, and author of the best-selling Einstein's Dreams..

The professors' comments, which followed a primer on particle physics and the SSC by Professor Edward H. Farhi of physics, were timely: next week the US Senate is scheduled to vote on whether to fund construction of the SSC for the coming fiscal year (the machine is currently about 20 percent complete). The Senate vote will decide the fate of the project; in June, the House of Representatives voted to kill it.

In the SSC, two beams of protons traveling at close to the speed of light in opposite directions would hurtle around a 54-mile tunnel into one another. When the protons collide, physicists hope to look at the debris, which could include subatomic particles that have been predicted but never before seen.

"The SSC is regarded by everybody in the field as the next crucial step in the development of particle physics," Professor Friedman said. He explained that while the current theory used to describe particle physics is very good, it does have some problems. For example, he said, "when you take this lovely theory [known as the Standard Model] and extend it to SSC energies, it gives gross contradictions."

And although theorists have been working on ways to remedy the problems of the Standard Model for the last 10-15 years, they have not been successful, Professor Friedman said. "The reason is that physics is fundamentally an experimental field. Without new data we cannot progress to the next level of understanding."

This next level could include the discovery of a new force in nature. Dr. Friedman explained: "When you look at fundamental equations of the Standard Model they are very, very symmetric. The objects [described] in them have zero mass. [But] the mechanisms introduced to give particles masses also introduce a lack of symmetry-the forces we observe in nature are not symmetrical, they're not all equal. And the [current theory] does not clarify how this really should be done.

"It turns out," he continued, "that calculations strongly indicate that at SSC energies there will be a manifestation of a new kind of force, and that force is the force that basically causes the symmetry breaking, and is the origin of mass.

"So.we're on the verge of being able to possibly measure a new force. And that's a remarkable thing, because.all of the forces we [know of today] were known at the end of the 19th century. "Without the supercollider we will not be able to examine and investigate this force."

Professors Friedman and Lightman also noted that technological innovations come from basic research. "History is replete with examples of situations where when one has advanced basic knowledge, there have been enormous applications," Dr. Friedman said. Nevertheless, both professors emphasized that such applications are not a given for every field. "A nation cannot bet on pure scientists like betting on race horses, but it can build stables," Dr. Lightman said.

The SSC, however, "is already having beneficial [technological] effects," Professor Friedman said. For example, he said, "Westinghouse has taken out six patents on superconducting magnets [such magnets will guide the protons around the supercollider ring], and we have superconducting cable manufacturers who claim that because of work done at Fermi Lab and the SSC, they are now competitive with anybody in the rest of the world in terms of making [superconducting] cable." According to people in the business, he said, the market in superconducting technology could be between $150 and $200 billion by the year 2020.

But the SSC-and basic science in general-are also of value to the nation for other, humanistic reasons, Professor Lightman said.

For one, pure science can change our world view. "We need to be periodically shaken up, to periodically break free from the endless cycle of one generation coming after another.."

He gave as an example of such a shake-up Madame Curie's discovery of radioactivity: "Since ancient times, western human beings had worshipped this ultimate material unit called the atom. It was indestructible, it was exquisitely unfathomable. And then Madame Curie found that atoms spit out little pieces of themselves. And the world was never the same again."

Similarly, "after Copernicus, we have a much more humble view of our place in the universe, and after Darwin we recognize other relatives hanging from the family tree."

In a final note on the value of pure science, Dr. Lightman said that such research can grant us cultural immortality. "We.still treasure the discoveries of Einstein and Keppler along with the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven. The civilization of ancient Greece has vanished, but not the Pythagorean theorem.

"And nothing in science or nature is more fundamental than [understanding] the basic forces and particles of nature, the goal of the SSC."

Professor Kendall, who is the J.A. Stratton Professor of Physics, discussed the opposition to the SSC, and warned of an "increasingly noisy and unfortunately increasingly effective anti-intellectual" minority in the US that "rejects the scientific method and scientific approach rather wholeheartedly."

If the supercollider is killed after an orderly debate on issues such as the cost of the project, "it would make me unhappy, but it would nevertheless be a legitimate way," Dr. Kendall said. But if the SSC "is killed from mindlessness, from this disorderly anti-intellectual push that is becoming so will represent a commitment to mediocrity, and we will abandon the cutting edge."

To combat such forces, Professor Kendall said, "the community of scientists [should] reach out and get the the public at large." He noted that the collider represents a great opportunity to do so, because it has attracted a great deal of public attention and therefore has a large audience.

Finally, Professor Kendall urged people to write to their senators in support of the SSC. "Do not think that this is a wasted exercise," he said.

At the end of the forum members of the MIT-Harvard Coalition for the Supercollider, which sponsored the event, distributed materials including addresses of all US senators and postcards (they even offered to mail the cards for people completing them before they left the forum). Members of the audience were also encouraged to sign a petition to President Clinton, which was presented last Friday (two days after the forum) to John H. Gibbons, assistant to the President for science and technology.

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 6).

Related Topics

More MIT News