Today, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva—the world’s biggest and most powerful particle accelerator, known for discovering the Higgs boson—grabs most of the atom-smashing headlines. But if things had gone just a little differently, the Americans would have been the ones to prove the existence of the Higgs, the so-called “God particle” whose existence physicists needed to prove in order to verify the rest of the Standard Model, which describes how the fundamental particles of the universe behave and interact.
The Superconducting Super Collider, also known as the Desertron, first got going in the early 1980s, and was approved by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. At the time, Reagan’s scientific advisor encouraged the physicists involved to think big. And they did. According to Scientific American, the Superconducting Super Collider “was to have 20 times the collision energy of any existing or planned machine; it would have had five times the energy of even today’s LHC collisions.” The project was to have a circumference of 51 miles, and was planned to encircle the desert town of Waxahachie, Texas.
But it was all just a beautiful dream. As Dylan Thuras of Atlas Obscura notes in the new video above, all that’s left of the collider in Waxahachie now is “a 14-mile scar on the soul of American physics.” Despite this ambition to build a particle accelerator that likely would have found the Higgs long ago (among other discoveries), the U.S. House of Representatives voted to kill the project in 1992, just a year after it began. It was doomed by budget issues and political concerns over “luxury science,” among other conflicts. (One of the biggest stumbling blocks was the fact that the projected cost tripled as the work progressed, and expected funds from foreign governments and the state of Texas never materialized.) When it was finally squashed in 1993, $2 billion had already been invested and 14 miles of tunnels had been dug.
Today, according to Atlas Obscura, “the site looks like a decrepit office park dropped in the middle of nowhere.” The tunnels still exist, although they have been flooded to protect them. Plans for the site over the years have included mushroom farming and data storage, Atlas Obscura notes, although the land is currently owned by a chemical company—who can hopefully salvage something from the site of so much wasted ambition. For more on the Desertron, watch the video above, and check out Atlas Obscura's other 100 Wonders videos here.
Primary image: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain