How Texas Lost the World's Largest Super Collider

The Higgs boson, a particle that has shaped the theories of modern particle physics, was discovered at a super collider in Geneva. It was a hugely significant moment for Big Science, one that received a Nobel Prize earlier this year—and it should have been discovered in Texas.
Mon October 21, 2013 1:15 pm
Magnablend, a chemical blending plant, bought the shell of the abandoned SSC last year.
Photograph by Will Graham

When the discovery of the last particle in the Standard Model of physics, the Higgs boson, was announced in the spring of 2012 many physicists, afflicted by an anxiety special to their profession, soon began hedging that same announcement. Most were reluctant to claim outright that what they’d observed at the CERN particle collider in Geneva was indeed the elusive Higgs, the subatomic particle that could explain how all matter acquires mass. Eventually their reticence suffused the name of the particle itself, as it was quickly described as a Higgs- like particle.

That summer, at the official announcement in Geneva, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the stately director general of CERN, declared “I think we have it.” It was an enormous scientific discovery—arguably one of the biggest of the 21 st century, a claim bolstered by its recent Nobel Prize award—but the celebration, on the whole, was restrained. Mild applause ensued, a man removed his glasses and dabbed a handkerchief at his tears. The conference room then reassumed its churchlike sobriety.

Physicists are a shrewd species. History has shown them the political consequences of premature announcements. A year before, a team of physicists at CERN announced the observation of neutrinos rushing faster than the speed of light. If the phenomenon was real, almost all we knew about physics would crumble. Most physicists were incredulous, and rightfully so, as the “superluminal” neutrinos turned out to be an artifact of miswired fiber optics and a bad atomic clock. It was embarrassing; people resigned. Many physicists condemned the announcement as sensational, a swat at the hard reality of modern experimental physics, which is forevermore Big Science: a political animal of bureaucracy, real estate, diplomacy, rhetoric, and tax-based funding. People have to trust physicists more than ever before, a tall order considering the arcane nature of theoretical science. And yet the tools required to prove or disprove certain hypotheses often require significant amounts of money.

The international operation of CERN marked a monumental success in this respect. To prove the existence of the Higgs boson, which has been contentiously described as the “God particle,” required $9 billion, ten years of study, thousands of careers, and a seventeen-mile collider ring bored out of the earth on the Franco-Swiss border. At fourteen Teraelectron-volts (TeV)*, it is the most energetic super collider ever built, and also one of the largest, most complex scientific experiments in history. Many have called it a modern-day cathedral.

And it should have been built in Texas.

Five-thousand miles southwest of Geneva, just outside Waxahachie, Texas, are the remnants of a super collider whose energy and circumference—true to American sensibility—would have dwarfed those of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Nobody doubts that the 40 TeV Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas would have discovered the Higgs boson a decade before CERN. The collider’s tunnel would have entrenched Waxahachie in a topographical oval that curved east before the southern Dallas County line, then running southwest under Bardwell Lake and curving north at Onion Creek. Since Congress canceled the project twenty years ago, on October 21, 1993, Waxahachie has witnessed the bizarre and disquieting history of its failure.

Prominent physicists have a shared tendency to mischaracterize Waxahachie as a bucolic Victorian town in the fading years of its antebellum glory, a place that would exalt the worldly benefits of a multi-billion dollar science project. Sean Carroll, in his book The Particle at the End of the Universe , called it a “sleepy hamlet.” Even when the SSC project first broke ground, this was not the case. Waxahachie, the seat of Ellis County, was once a wealthy cotton nexus of the southwest, and today is a small blue-collar city of 30,000 that now depends on companies rooted in industrial science. You see evidence of this just outside and within the city limits: Redox Chemicals, Wesco Chemicals, Helena Chemical, Schirm Chemical, Magnablend. An industrial train engine, servicing companies like these, hauls black rotund tankers and covered hopper boxcars with more rust than paint through every part of Waxahachie. It stops traffic. It trundles under the brindled and tire-beaten sliver of Texas Highway 77 that brings vehicles south from Dallas, marshaled by frontage roads that bracket rapacious commercial development into aisles along the old interstate. Waxahachie’s historic district, with its palatial granite courthouse, Civil War monuments, renovated museum, and brick walking malls, is preserved fiercely against such development, as is the nearby neighborhood of gorgeous Victorian and Gingerbread homes—though the train runs through both areas. Past all this, on Waxahachie’s fringe, you will find enormous churches and small cottages aside the capillaries of old farm-to-market roads that lead to rare patches of velour pasture among dry scrubland and blackland prairie, all under blue horizons and the skeletal tree lines of Texan winters. You can hear the train from that far out.

I was walking on the brittle grass of the old SSC campus with a few guides from the chemical blending company—Magnablend—that had recently purchased and converted the abandoned facility, nearly two decades after Congress canceled the project. I’d spend much of that tour listening to my guides trade lore about the SSC—Were these conduits for the coolant? Was this an entrance to the tunnel? Was this where they fabricated magnets?—only to watch them become sullen as we passed groups of men in PPEs with facial blast shields adjusting vat dials and pumping chemicals through recondite hoses. When we were surrounded by evidence of what this place had become they became almost self-conscious. One of my guides mentioned a book about the SSC and would spend the rest of the tour plumbing his memory for its name and author.

We walked up to the peak of a grassy hill to find a large dip, fifteen feet in diameter, filled with brambles and dead vegetation. The scene looked like hair collected at the bottom of a shower drain. Three other areas like this one lay on the property. The hill was probably a capped shaft, sunk hundreds of feet into the main tunnel

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