Why the Higgs boson wasn’t discovered in America

July 5, 2012

It was a triumphant moment for science: On Wednesday in Geneva, a team of researchers at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that they had found the elusive Higgs boson — or at least something that looks an awful lot like it.

A representation of traces of a proton-proton collision in the search for the Higgs boson, released by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern). Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Physicists have been searching for evidence of the Higgs, which supposedly gives other particles their mass, for nearly half a century, ever since it was first predicted by theorists in 1964. (Here's a nice Higgs explainer.) But the actual boson itself couldn't be found until the construction of the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle accelerator, which spans a 17-mile circumference beneath the border of Switzerland and France.

Here's a lesser-known fact, however. The Higgs could have been discovered about a decade earlier — and in Texas rather than Switzerland. Back in the 1980s, American physicists were developing a particle accelerator three times as powerful as Europe's Large Hadron Collider. But Congress eventually cut off funds and the project collapsed. Steven Weinberg, a physicist and Nobel laureate involved in the planning, tells the story:

In the early 1980s the US began plans for the Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC, which would accelerate protons to 20 TeV, three times the maximum energy that will be available at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. After a decade of work, the design was completed, a site was selected in Texas, land bought, and construction begun on a tunnel and on magnets to steer the protons.

Then in 1992 the House of Representatives canceled funding for the SSC. Funding was restored by a House–Senate conference committee, but the next year the same happened again, and this time the House would not go along with the recommendation of the conference committee. After the expenditure of almost two billion dollars and thousands of man-years, the SSC was dead.

One thing that killed the SSC was an undeserved reputation for over-spending. There was even nonsense in the press about spending on potted plants for the corridors of the administration building. Projected costs did increase, but the main reason was that, year by year, Congress never supplied sufficient funds to keep to the planned rate of spending. This stretched out the time and hence the cost to complete the project. Even so, the SSC met all technical challenges, and could have been completed for about what has been spent on the LHC, and completed a decade earlier.

So the United States could have had solid bragging rights for the Higgs, but Congress didn't want to pay for a $10 billion particle accelerator after the Cold War ended. Now, one way to look at this is that the Higgs got located anyway — with Europeans mostly footing the bill — so what's the harm? Who cares who discovers the thing, as long as it gets discovered?

Yet Weinberg argues that Congress's reluctance to fund massive scientific endeavors represents a real crisis for science in America. Go read his essay for more on that.

Update: People have been asking which party killed the Superconducting Super Collider. The answer is... both of them. The key Senate vote came in 1993, when Democrats controlled Congress. All told, 26 Democrats voted to kill the project and 29 voted to keep it; 31 Republicans voted to kill and 13 voted to maintain funding.

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Ezra Klein · July 5, 2012