That left Japan as a major target for foreign funding. Delegations began visiting Japan as early as 1984, but tensions over Tokyo’s inroads into the U.S. automobile market often got in the way, as did U.S. requests that Japan establish quotas for importation of U.S. auto parts. By 1991 Pres. George H. W. Bush’s popularity was falling, and the Japanese were not convinced of U.S. commitment to the SSC. The accelerator was to feature prominently in Japan–U.S. observances of the 50th anniversary of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, but Bush’s trip to Japan was delayed as trade tensions mounted. With the tenor of the relationship in flux, high-level talks on the SSC came to nothing, and Bush’s visit to Japan in early 1992, where the Japanese expected the U.S. president to directly ask Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa for SSC funding, ended with Bush’s unfortunate and embarrassing regurgitation on Miyazawa. Noting that Bush’s reelection looked increasingly unlikely, Japan postponed a decision on the SSC. And despite expressing support for it as a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton and his administration never gave much support to the project.
What should the U.S. have done differently? Burton Richter, the Nobel laureate who was then director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (now known as the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) in California, says “it was a very bad mistake to seek funding only after the design parameters of the project were determined.”
There was also infighting among subfields of U.S. physics, as condensed matter physicists were especially concerned that the SSC would drain funding from other specialties. Many physicists spent at least a year grieving and venting their disappointment and anger in public, especially in Physics Today, the U.S. magazine devoted to covering the field. When the SSC was finally canceled, the late Rustum Roy, professor of materials sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, expressed his joy to the New York Times. “This comeuppance for high-energy physics was long overdue.” Roy said. “There is an acute oversupply of scientists in the United States,” which he and others said was the educational system’s responsibility to fix.
Richter, now director emeritus at SLAC, thinks the bitterness between subfields of physics has faded, and that scientists learned a valuable lesson: “Once a project is approved, shut up.”
A lack of will
It was not just physics that lost out when the SSC was canceled. There had been tremendous support from the state of Texas and from the local community, and their enthusiasm came to naught. Some lost land rights that went to construction of the tunnel, and dozens of homes were moved for building construction, but there was little of the bitterness that might be expected today. “There was a great feeling of support from the local people,” says Roy Schwitters, professor of physics at The University of Texas at Austin who was the SSC’s director for its last five (and most significant) years, “even from those who lost their homes. They liked the idea that the country did super, far-out things,” he added. Local schools welcomed the collider, and lab scientists set up cosmic-ray monitors in classrooms to teach the basics of particle science (with plans to later demonstrate that no harmful radiation was coming from the accelerator). “I think it was a tragedy for the country, and certainly for high-energy physics,” Schwitters says. “It’s almost removed the possibility—the vision—that you can build really new major projects when the scientific community gets behind and supports them.”
Some see an even larger picture in the SSC’s demise. “You can blame lots of people,” says Nicholas Samios, former director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, “but it was clearly a lack of will. We always got things done. It turned a getting-things-done society into a conservative, play-it-safe, no-risk society,” Samios laments. “We’re not made of the right stuff anymore.”