The Prairie Home Accelerator: A Gathering of Folks from All over Considers the Meaning and Impact of the Proposed Superconducting Super Collider

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The Prairie Home Accelerator

"When the mayor of Waxahachie, Texas, says, "We have to find the Higgs boson,' something has happened." This remark by Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., seems to describe the mood of the National SSC Symposium held recently in Denver. One of several meetings planned around the theme of the construction of the proposed Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which would be the most powerful proton accelerator and largest physics laboratory ever built, the symposium seemed to be part of an attempt to build an intellectual and political coalition of an unprecedented sort.

If the mayor of Waxahachie (pop. 14,624) and the mayor of Fairfield, Calif. (pop. 58,099), who was also there, didn't know what a Higgs boson was before the meeting, they had a good idea afterward. The symposium gave them and a few hundred other people a mini-tutorial in particle physics and accelerator technology taught by some of the most prominent scientists in the field. Between technical lectures was a lot of political talk -- most of it upbeat -- by representatives of the Reagan administration, members of Congress, state governors and one lieutenant governor.

In all probability, there has never been a scientific meeting remotely like the National SSC Symposium. The meeting had some aspects of a political convention, or perhaps a Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club convention, and some aspects of a university extension course in physics. People went around wearing large lapel buttons, some with outlines of the state of Michigan, others with a yellow clock inscribed "Time for Amarillo," yet others touting California, Nevada or northern New York. Earnest partisans of various of the 36 sites under consideration for the SSC buttonholed passersby in corridors to expatiate on the scenic, educational and commercial virtues of their neighborhoods. Interspersed with the salesmanship were remarks like: "My goodness, I never knew what a lepton was before." Or: "How strong is the evidence for the existence of the top quark?"

Previous proposals for physics laboratories did not feature this kind of grass-roots politicking. Fermilab, which now has the world's most powerful proton accelerator, was authorized mainly by negotiations between physicists and federal officials -- and particularly by negotiations between President Lyndon B. Johnson and the then minority leader of the senate, Everett Dirksen of Illinois -- though state officials did get into the site selection process.

The SSC will have 20 times the energy of Fermilab's accelerator, the Tevatron -- 40 trillion electron-volts to 2 trillion. It will require a ring tunnel 53 miles in circumference and will take several thousand acres of land. Allowing for inflation over the construction period, its cost will be $5 billion or $6 billion. Apparently the magnitude of the project inspired its proponents to seek this kind of widespread popular support. Even if the SSC is never built, the symposium seems to have done something new for popular literacy in physics.

The filling out of the standard model of particle physics, finding the particles it predicts but that have not yet been found, is suddenly of interest to the sort of person who attends precinct party causes. The Higgs bosons are, in theory, fundamental objects whose existence is connected to the question of how particles that make up matter get their mass -- or, one might say, the question of why they are matter and not something else. The suspense over whether the Higgses really exist is now whether the Higgses really politics of Texas. People from all over listen intently to a discussion of the things physicists expect to be made in a collision of quark with quark, and why the experiment has to start with very high-energy collisions of proton against proton to get the quark-quark collision.

Welcoming the symposium, Gov. …