09/30/2013 01:51 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

Ironic End to a Big Science Project

Within the environs of Geneva, Switzerland, thousands of the world's best physicists are hard at work. The product of their labor is a new form of matter, never before seen in this world. They are revealing mysterious forces of nature that have sculpted the entire universe, from galaxies to stars, humans to DNA, from atoms to quarks. Their grand scientific instrument is the world's largest particle accelerator, called the "Large Hadron Collider" or "LHC." It belongs to CERN, the Centre de European Recherche Nucleaire. CERN belongs to Europe, and is the largest physics laboratory on earth. Produced in the LHC are the most energetic collisions between sub-atomic particles ever achieved by humans in the laboratory. In its simplest terms, the LHC is the world's most powerful microscope, and it is now the foundry of the Higgs boson, aka the God Particle, officially discovered on July 4th of 2012, and set to resume at still higher energies in 2015. The results of the LHC have deep implications for the understanding of the laws of nature, and will bestow much economic benefit to the countries of Europe. The U.S. benefits, to an extent, for contributing funding and collaboration in the effort.

But, the LHC exists because the U.S botched an even greater undertaking, to build an even bigger accelerator, deep in the heart of Texas, in a picturesque small farm town called Waxahachie, some twenty years ago. The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was a grand and noble undertaking, and would have been the ultimate jewel in the crown of world-wide scientific and industrial prowess, and a reassertion of the old Yankee can-do spirit. But, alas, the SSC died a stillborn death in Congress in 1993.

It is the height of irony that at the same time the SSC perished, the community of academic economists was finally comprehending, in detail, what actually causes economies to grow and prosper. Using a sophisticated mathematical theory developed in the 1950's by Robert Solow it became possible to calibrate the spectacular post-World War II U.S. economic growth. This was not due to the usual activity of bank lending and gambling on commodities and high flying stocks. Rather, there was something else driving the boom, an "exogenous input," as Solow called it, creating new businesses, and new high quality jobs aplenty, and 80% of the post-War prosperity was coming from this mysterious exogenous input. But what exactly was it? The answer came in the 1990's, just as the SSC was being terminated, largely by the efforts a young maverick economist named Paul Romer: economies grow because of investment in science! Basic scientific research pays a handsome dividend; the more science the better; a balanced portfolio, from green research to cutting steel particle physics, is essential. If you want to have a great economy, with jobs and prosperity aplenty, then you must spend your money on basic science. There is virtually no other way to do it. (see: Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery, by David Warsh, W. W. Norton & Company (2007))

Equally ironic in the 1990's, the grandest example of an "exogenous input" was playing out. In 1989, a young computer scientist at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee, wrote a project proposal to the laboratory's Computing Division to develop a novel "distributed information system." Berners-Lee and associates defined the basic concepts, introducing funny labels like "URL," "http," and "html," and "browser" and "server software," and the World-Wide-Web was soon up and running. In 1991, the Web rapidly spread to Fermilab, Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory, Brookhaven Lab, and beyond, as a wide range of universities and research laboratories started to use it. A steady trickle of new "web-sites" soon became a torrential flood. The World-Wide-Web was a direct consequence of the demands of the science of particle physics with its large international collaborations, which provided the essential paradigm for its development.

However, in a fit of budget austerity, concealed by faint praise, Congress officially killed the SSC on October 31, 1993. While there were, indeed, many problems in the execution of the SSC project, Congress, our elected "leaders," had no interest in leading it forward. One can read about it in greater detail at any of the numerous internet web-sites, provided by the World-Wide-Web. For all of science and as an engine of vital economic prosperity in the US, the termination of the SSC was an unmitigated disaster .

The tunnel for the SSC was about a third complete, more than two billion dollars had already been spent, yet the massive drilling machines were abandoned where they stood. The tunnel itself, carved in the frail Austin chalk, its sump pumps unplugged, has now filled with groundwater, its walls soggy and collapsing, the heavy equipment dissolving away like some far-off ship-wreck. Sage brush once again rolls in the wind through the downtown streets of Waxahachie, as plywood panels creak and shutters clap against walls, like some late-night replay of The Last Picture Show.

Big science continues to fall victim to our dysfunctional politics. Particle physics in the U.S. has not enjoyed the construction of a new cutting edge particle accelerator since Fermilab's Tevatron was built in the 1980's. Big science in other fields, such as nuclear fusion, and astrophysics, has also lost many large scale projects. Can modern American-style democracy ever undertake grand science endeavors again? Or will the great discoveries and explorations of the ultimate frontiers of knowledge happen only elsewhere, and the associated "exogenous inputs" flow only into other nation's economies?

We salute CERN, the LHC and the discovery of the Higgs boson!