Feature

Editor's Letter: America's black hole

After funding for the Superconducting Supercollider in Texas collapsed, some of the nation's particle physicists went to Wall Street to design financial derivatives.

The headlines from Geneva have been downright cosmic. This week we learned that particle physicists working at the CERN Large Hadron Collider outside that tidy Swiss city were homing in on the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” that imparts mass to everything in the universe. Earlier this year, scientists there saw baffling evidence of effect coming before cause: Subatomic neutrinos appeared to move faster than the speed of light, arriving before they were even dispatched. And back in 2008, when CERN’s collider was first fired up, some pretty serious people voiced concerns that it might generate a black hole that could suck Switzerland and the rest of the known universe into a vortex of nonexistence.

If all that was big news from Geneva, just imagine how much bigger it would have been coming out of Texas. And maybe we’d all be better off if it had. What the Europeans are seeking with their merely “large” collider would have been nailed long ago by the Texas-size Superconducting Supercollider, designed to be nearly three times as powerful. But in 1993 Congress yanked funding for the venture, partly because Big Science lacked urgency after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and partly because projected costs had almost doubled, to $11 billion. Remnants of the abandoned mega-project still haunt the grasslands around Waxahachie. Many American particle physicists were disappointed by the Supercollider’s death. Some of them turned to the no-less-fascinating mathematical challenges of designing financial derivatives for Wall Street and predicting their behavior in a complex marketplace. We all know how that turned out. We got our black hole after all.   

James Graff

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