The Stalinist History of the Superconducting Supercollider

Lubos Motl had a reference to the current unfortunate state of particle physics in the US, and its origins in the demise of the Superconducting Supercollider, which was to have been a giant collider built in Texas. To refresh my memory, I looked up the Wikipedia article on the SSC. I was a member of the APS division of particles and fields in those days, an I had followed the SSC story closely, even participating in a very minor way in some of the debate. What I found in the Wikipedia article didn't match my memory of the events, so I looked a bit further. What I found was upsetting. The Wikipedia article was little more than an Stalinist version of the real SSC history.

The word Stalinist is a general derogatory epithet, so let me make explicit what I mean by it here: "making shit up to fit an ideological agenda."

Here are the most offensive sentences:

The project was eventually canceled by Congress in 1993 due to heavy pressure from President Bill Clinton.[citation needed] Many questioned the wisdom of closing down the facility, which had brought high-paying science jobs to the southern regions of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex.[citation needed] As predicted, the closing of the SSC held drastic ramifications for the area, and resulted in a mild recession made most evident in those parts of Dallas which lay south of the Trinity River.[citation needed] It is thought today that President Clinton had wanted to close the SSC all along as an economic retaliation against George H. W. Bush's home state of Texas.[citation needed]

Was that the way it really happened? The official SSC history (which does not discuss the termination) contained expressions of enthusiastic support from Clinton and Gore. A more balanced account here shows that the House revolt against the SSC involved both Republicans and Dems, and that an influential current Republican Congressman, Sherwood Boehlert, whose web site lists him as Chaiman of the House Science Committee, was one of the arch-foes of the SSC. More Democrats that Republicans voted to save it.

A more balanced account, in my opinion, is John Cramer's article in Analog. A series of blunders by high ranking policy people had raised costs and made the program very expensive:

When George Bush became President in 1989, the SSC cost estimate, with a more realistic inflation rate, rose to $5.9 billion. This was already 34% above the cost Reagan had announced. Bush chose as his Energy Secretary a spit-and-polish Rickover protege from the Navy's nuclear submarine program, Admiral James Watkins. Watkins' appointment was a disaster for the SSC. His management style, developed with large DOD nuclear submarine construction projects, was exactly wrong, as applied to a cutting-edge scientific project like the SSC. He treated the dedicated physicists and seasoned accelerator engineers of the SSC like crooked shipyard contractors trying to sell the government $5,000 toilet seats. Seeking personal control, he grossly increased the bureaucracy and paperwork associated with SSC oversight. He dismantled the existing SSC management structure, installing people that he trusted in key positions while displacing physicists and experienced accelerator builders from the decision chains. The SSC Program Office in Dallas swelled to one hundred bureaucrats, sixty permanent staffers plus forty more on temporary assignment from elsewhere in the DOE. Roy Schwitters, SSC Director, later characterized the DOE's massive oversight overkill as "the revenge of the C students."

Clinton didn't help much either, despite giving lip support to the project. His Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary proved to be another inept administrator. Meanwhile, escalating costs were causing problems. The conservative think tank, The Cato Institute unleashed this attack: Super Boondoggle Time To Pull The Plug On The Superconducting Super Collider.

Physicists were also divided. Probably most damaging was the opposition of Philip Anderson, and other condensed matter physicists. Perhaps they hoped that money not spent on the SSC would go to condensed matter physics - I doubt that much of it did.

Clinton is perhaps guilty of not defending the SSC as diligently as he might have, though it was probably a lost cause regardless, but the charge that he orchestrated the defeat is utter, Stalinist, nonsense.

I am not enough of a Wikipediologist to know who posted that crap, but somebody who remembers the real history, ideally someone personally involved, should correct it.


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