The Desertron, (or, if you want it in Idaho, the Potatotron). A guest blog by Joseph Martin
Snowmass, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains, seems unlikely to beget a Desertron, but beget one it did. America’s particle physicists descend on the idyllic resort town once every few summers for their field’s most important confab. Burning questions about the future of particle physics over the past few decades have been hashed out “at Snowmass.” In 1982, the burningest questions were where, when, and how to build the next-generation particle accelerator, which would require so much cheap, flat, and sparsely populated space that it would by necessity be a “machine-in-the-desert,” as Leon Lederman put it.[i] Following Lederman’s lead, participants at Snowmass 1982 began calling this imagined machine “the Desertron.”[ii] News outlets seized on the flashy name for what would eventually become the ill-starred Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC. Time, The Economist, New Scientist and others reported breathlessly after Snowmass 1982 on how the Desertron, a multi-billion-dollar particle physics dream machine, would reshape our understanding of the universe. The mammoth accelerator ring to rule them all, with a beam pipe 54.1 miles in circumference, would eventually be sited in Waxahatchie, Texas, south of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Not quite the desert wasteland Lederman had in mind, but close enough.
The Desertron’s name was so transparently about geography that Senator James McClure tried to attract the project, and the pork that came with it, to his home state of Idaho by renaming it the Potatotron.[iii] But the project’s skeptics soon seized on another interpretation: the machine could be expected to map out a vast, empty conceptual desert where little new physics was likely to be found. The target energy for the SSC was 20 TeV, below which particle physicists were certain the Higgs boson, the last piece of the standard model of particle physics that awaited experimental discovery, would be found. Steven Weinberg justified the 20 TeV target to Congress with an analogy to Columbus: “It is a little bit like Columbus sailing west from Spain. Columbus promised that he would get to the Indies if he could sail far enough West. Well, that was wrong, but what he should have said, which would have been correct, is that if he sailed far enough West, he would get to the Indies unless something equally interesting got in the way.”[iv] The 20 TeV target guaranteed finding the Higgs, unless the machine first found physics that broke the standard model and forced a complete reimagining of the field.
But where Weinberg saw Columbus, others saw Burke and Wills, the Australian explorers who succeeded in crossing the continent from south to north, but found little nourishment in the empty desert between the coasts and died trying to complete the return journey. Some understandings of the standard model suggested that, although the journey to 20 TeV would surely uncover the Higgs, little else of interest was likely to appear along the way. Discovering the Higgs isolated in a desert of nothingness has come to be known as the “nightmare scenario” for particle physics, and it appears to be playing out now at the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs was uncovered in 2012. This and other objections—most notably from condensed matter physicists who complained that the Desertron promised a funding desert for physicists pursuing fundamental research in anything other than elementary particle physics—would stoke opposition to the project. That opposition contributed to Congress yanking the SSC’s funding in 1993.
The vision particle physicists shared for the future of the Desertron turned out to be a mirage, but construction had already begun in Waxahatchie when Congress pulled the rug out from under the accelerator. Much of the underground tunnel for the beam pipe and been excavated. A large office complex had been built to house the armies of theoretical and experimental physicists, engineers, technicians, and other staff who would have been necessary to keep the behemoth facility running. But with the project extinguished, the site was abandoned. And so, a little over a decade after it was dubbed the Desertron, the SSC earned the moniker in a third sense: it lay deserted.
Joseph D. Martin is a historian of science based at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Philadelphia and co-editor of the journal Endeavour. He studies the physical sciences and scientific institutions in the United States, and is currently completing a book manuscript on the history of American solid state and condensed matter physics entitled The Solid State Insurrection, which will include more discussion of condensed matter physicists' opposition to the Desertron.
[i] L. M. Lederman, “Fermilab and the Future of HEP,” in Proceedings of the 1982 DPF Summer Study on Elementary Particle Physics and Future Facilities, ed. Rene Donaldson, Richard Gustafson, and Frank Paige (Washington, DC: US Department of Energy, 1983), 125–27, on 125. http://lss.fnal.gov/conf/C8206282/pg125.pdf.
[ii] L. Pondrom et al., “Report of the Fixed Target Proton Accelerator Group,” in ibid., 98–104, on 104. http://lss.fnal.gov/conf/C8206282/pg98.pdf. See also: Michael Riordan, Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne W. Kolb, Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 13–15.
[iii] Superconducting Super Collider: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy Research and Development of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, 100th Cong, April 7, 1987 (opening statement of Senator James McClure), 6. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000013682262.
[iv] Superconducting Super Collider: Hearings before the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, House of Representatives, 100th Cong., April 7, 8, 9, 1987 (statement of Steven Weinberg), 245. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000013380458.