Jun 12 2008

The God Particle and 21st Century Waves

Published by at 7:43 pm under Wave Guide 8: Non-Space MEPs

The world’s largest scientific instrument — CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — is approaching “switch on” and the search for what physicists call “the God particle” is on again! The sparkling excitement associated with this type of Big Science and its pursuit of the nature of matter, black holes, and the origin of the Universe, reminds us of another project…

Once upon a time there was an American project called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). SSC was to be 3 times more powerful than LHC and targeted the same holy grail of physics. But despite being advocated and managed in the U.S. by the world’s best physicists, it failed.

SSC’s fate is illuminated by the last 200 years of patterns in the economy, technology, and society, and provides lessons for future macro-engineering projects (MEPs) and great explorations.

Lesson 1: Never initiate a $ multi-B MEP during the downgoing portion of the 56 year energy/economic cycle (it peaked in 1969). Society was not affluent (we were headed for the 1987 stock market crash; largest since the Great Depression) and cost was an issue. SSC cost was estimated at $ 4+ B in 1987 and $ 12+ B in 1993 when it was finally canceled by Congress.

Lesson 2: Never propose a big MEP during the downgoing portion of the 56-year energy/economic cycle when another spectacular MEP has already been approved. President Reagan announced Space Station Freedom in 1984 and SSC site selection began in 1987. We’re reminded that SSC wounds haven’t healed yet by Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg who last year called the International Space Station (ISS) an “…orbital turkey,” and ridiculed human spaceflight in general.

Lesson 3: Large MEPs like SSC that are proposed between Maslow Windows (i.e., “trough” projects) must be associated with a strategic conflict (e.g. the A-Bomb project during WW II) for them to be viable. SSC was a competition between the U.S. and our friends the Europeans; Congress lost interest.

Lesson 4: MEPs proposed at any time must be impressive and inspirational to achieve public approval. Unlike the pyramids, European cathedrals, and the Panama Canal, most of SSC was buried underground and invisible. Although the physics was profound, the message was lost.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The God Particle and 21st Century Waves”

  1. Mike Zornon 12 Jun 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Lesson 4: Not only was the physics profound, it was largely incomprehensible to the average citizen – and the average Congressman (which includes all of them). The pyramids were in all likelihood built over the objections of the average Egyptian. All the other MEPs had great visibility and a connection with national pride. Looking for tiny little things, underground, with machinery that doesn’t even make for a good news clip (unlike latter years’ spinning tape drives), makes for a hard sell.

    And I think we do have to sell these things to the public – after all, they’re footing the bill. But given the level of science education in this country, it’s a lost cause.

    The A-bomb project grew without public support because the very nature of secrecy involved kept it hidden. I don’t know if you could include it in the “canonical list of MEPs”.

  2. Tsvi Biskon 13 Jun 2008 at 4:23 pm

    I believe Mike Zorn’s comment is well made. What MEPs could be sold to a democratic citizenry?
    1. Getting the United States off of imported oil within 10 years — doable, explanable, good for economy, related to national security and national pride (the day the last tanker unloading foreign oil leaves port will become a national holiday like the 4th of July)
    2. From anti-communism to anti-cometism; developing a planetary defense system against astroids, comets etc. — doable, explanable, good for the survival of the human race…(every 20 million years or so the planet earth has a really shitty day).

    Both these projects have easily explained positive practical consequences, but (like the man on the moon project) will also require much basic science research to be successful.

    Obscure, pure science with no explanable practical consequences is not a hard sell it is an impossible sell when it requires tons of taxpayer money. Pure science used to be cheaper than applied science — today it is more expensive. This might be considered a great dilema for human progress, but thankfully much “applied” science today requires a great deal of basic science to succeed.

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