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How Texas Lost Its Chance at Finding the 'God Particle'

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Update: Scientists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert have been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for their quest for the Higgs boson – the so-called “God particle.”

The European Organization for Nuclear Research proved its existence last year with a massive particle accelerator. But as KUT reported shortly after the particle’s  discovery, some Texas physicists say the discovery could have been made here years ago.

Original story (July 4, 2012): Scientists in Switzerland announced overnight the discovery of what appears to be a particle that’s long been hypothesized, but never proven. It’s a bittersweet moment for some Texas physicists.

The search has been on for decades for what’s known as the Higgs boson, sometimes called the “God particle”.

Now the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, says it can prove the Higgs boson exists with their massive particle accelerator.

If you ask a physicist how big the discovery of the Higgs boson is, they’re not going to downplay it.

“It’s certainly the most important thing that’s been discovered at the fundamental level in this century so far,” said Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist at UT. He’s been thinking about the Higgs boson for decades.

“We would have all this settled long ago, if Congress had not foolishly cancelled a great scientific project that was going to be built here in Texas – the Superconducting Super Collider.”

Weinberg was also on the site selection committee for the Super Collider project.

The plan was to build a state-of-the-art facility to study the most basic elements of everything in the universe. The payoff – as this promotional video from the time promises – would be a new and exciting understanding of the world around us.

“The Super Collider was designed to study physics at extremely high energies – a factor of 20 times greater than was possible in the world at that time,” says Roy Schwitters, who directed the Super Collider project. Planned for Waxahachie, it would be a massive circular underground tunnel, 54 miles long – a giant high-tech halo encircling the city.

“In fact, just going under ordinary folks farms and towns and highways where it would do its thing,” says Schwitters.

It did its thing like this, pretty much the same as any other collider:

“It was basically two large racetracks around which protons, which are the nucleus of hydrogen – the elementary stuff that we’re all made of – it could race them around these racetracks in opposite directions and cause them to collide head on,” says Schwitters.

“And there are these detectors that sort out what is produced in the collisions,” says Weinberg.

Scientists then study that data to find traces of things like the Higgs boson.

With the blessing of Congress, construction began on the Super Collider in 1991. Fifteen miles of tunnel were dug. But two years and several billion dollars later, bad news struck.

The Super Collider was up against a new big science project you might have heard of: the International Space Station. The Super Collider? It lost.

“I couldn’t believe it at first,” said Weinberg. “It came as quite a shock in 1993, when the thing was canceled.”

“Well, it was devastating for everyone involved,” said Schwitters. “You know, the loss of the scientific opportunity because as I said, the reach of the facility, the energy advantage it had over even the CERN machine – which was being planned in those days – was three times greater. So it is … still is a great scientific opportunity.”

“Our feelings as American physicists about this great discovery at CERN have to be a little bittersweet,” said Weinberg. “This is a discovery that could have been and should have been made in America.”

Weinberg says he worries about the future of the country’s scientific boldness. He remembers being on the Larry King show in the early 1990s,  debating the Super Collider with a congressman.

“And he said he wasn’t against science, he just thought we ought to set priorities,” Weinberg recalls. “And I said ‘well that’s fine, I agree with that. The super collider would help us learn the laws of nature. Doesn’t that deserve a high priority?’ And he said ‘no’.”

The Superconducting Super Collider site sat vacant for almost 20 years. Roy Schwitters says it will probably never be used for scientific purposes. In fact, in January a Waxahachie chemical company bought the site. It will use the above ground buildings. But the company says the collider’s tunnels will remain closed and unused.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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