Europe's particle collider is Texas' lost opportunity

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by By SCOTT FARWELL / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 1:33 PM

WAXAHACHIE - Scientists fired up one of the world's biggest and most expensive experiments Wednesday in Switzerland - a 17-mile, $8 billion racetrack for protons that they hope will solve many of mankind's mysteries.

JIM MAHONEY/DMN
Fifteen years after Congress cut funding for Ellis County's accelerator, a cow stands at a feeding trough across from the abandoned site.

Where did we come from? How did the universe begin? How does the physical world work?

In Ellis County, the former home of a proton-accelerator project, politicians and others pondered an equally vexing question: What went wrong?

JIM MAHONEY/DMN
Weeds have taken over cracks in the concrete at the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider site in Waxahachie.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Waxahachie was primed for its own Big Bang. Scientists from around the globe gathered here in a collection of Los Alamos-style laboratories off a farm-to-market road just south of town.

They trucked in banks of computers and monster magnets, bought homes, and hired about 2,000 people. There weren't enough superlatives to describe the prospects of the Superconducting Super Collider.

"There were a lot of high hopes," said longtime Ellis County Commissioner Ron Brown. "This thing was supposed to be great for Ellis County, great for the United States and great for mankind."

But after $2 billion and 15 miles of tunnel, Congress killed the project in 1993.

The work soon moved to Europe, and eventually ended up on a rural patch of land used for dairy farming on the French-Swiss border.

The accelerator is expected to run full speed in coming months, featuring head-on collisions between proton beams in a super-chilled underground tunnel. The result, scientists believe, will be a subatomic fireworks show that will recreate the universe moments after it was born.

For the first time and with much fanfare, scientists on Wednesday fired a particle beam around the 17-mile Large Hadron Collider. The test run was quickly declared "one of the great engineering milestones of mankind."

Five thousand miles away in Ellis County, cows grazed without the cameras.

"Every six months or so they film a movie out there," said Lisa Shearin, who lives in a ranch-style home across the road from the low-slung brown buildings of the former Superconducting Super Collider. "My kids have a good time over there riding their skates and scooters."

The site shows its 15 years of neglect.

Waist-high weeds obscure sidewalks. Doors are rusted and padlocked. High-voltage power lines connect what appear to be abandoned buildings.

In the intervening years, the collider's equipment and land have been sold for pennies on the dollar. Plans to turn the site into a prison failed and Ellis County sold the buildings to J.B. Hunt, a trucking company, in 2006.

"It was an opportunity lost," said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, whose district includes Ellis County. "In my 24 years, it is the biggest strategic mistake the president and Congress have made."

He blamed shortsighted policies and partisan politics for the failure.

The Texas collider would have been three times larger and more powerful than the project unveiled in Europe Wednesday.

"Had we built it," Mr. Barton said, "it would have cost approximately as much as that one ... between 7 and 9 billion. It would have been on time and under budget."

The cost of the original project was estimated at $5 billion. Congress pulled the plug when estimates to complete the collider soared as high as $12 billion.

Mr. Barton said he had difficulty selling the mind-numbingly complex possibilities - the discovery of dark matter and top quarks - to the public.

"For a federal government with 3 trillion in spending a year to say the United States of America can't afford to build the Super Collider is hogwash," he said. "This is one of the rare times the United States has said, 'We don't want to expand the frontiers of knowledge.' "

Penny Ball, a DeSoto physicist who worked on the collider, agreed.

In coming years, as discoveries emerge from the proton accelerator in Europe, the U.S. may be reminded of its lost opportunity. She hopes the lesson sticks.

"I think this wonderful project in Europe will help teach lawmakers how shortsighted they were," she said. "And in the future maybe they won't be so quick to drop big projects because they're expensive and they don't see the immediate value in them."

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