Physics Project Never Materialized -- Superconducting Super Collider Site Is Being Sold Off In Pieces

WAXAHACHIE, Texas - In this small town about 20 miles south of Dallas, November came and went with a whimper - not with the bang of big discovery that scientists had imagined.

November was the month Texas' mammoth high-energy physics project was supposed to have started exploring fundamental atomic mysteries and the origins of the universe. The Superconducting Super Collider, a 54-mile underground loop planned around Waxahachie, was to have started whirling.

Scientists hoped to answer centuries-old questions about the origins of matter by crashing beams of subatomic particles into each other at near-light speeds and observing the collisions.

If scientists could have used the instrument to see the future, the scene in Waxahachie at the end of 1999 would have shocked them. Instead of being a bustling hub of international physics research, the atom smasher's 10,000-acre site is being sold in tracts of varying size, making way for Dallas' suburban expansion.

A poster from the project's heyday touts: "The discoveries resulting from the Superconducting Super Collider could have as great an impact on our lives - and the lives of future generations - as the discovery of fire had on prehistoric man or as the discovery of electricity has had on our lives."

But an inability to explain the esoteric project's quest in simple terms helped seal its fate in a pinch-penny Congress that viewed the collider as nothing more than a bloated, over-budget science experiment and pulled the plug on the program in 1993.

The building that was to house the powerful magnets used to accelerate the particle beams is now a refrigeration-manufacturing plant. Concrete fills the large cryogenic bays used to work on the magnets. Parts of the 15 miles of underground tunnels that were bored have been filled with gravel, and the huge shafts leading to the tunnels have been capped. A company that makes radioactive isotopes for nuclear medicine has bought the linear accelerator, where the particles would have been fed into the main tunnel.

Scientists hardly could have imagined such a result for a project that brought researchers from all over the globe to work on the world's largest and most powerful atom smasher. The town that had pinned such big dreams on the project sadly watched the scientists flee when the funding dried up.

For now, the vacuum of scientific research from the supercollider's demise has been filled by the CERN collider in Geneva, a smaller accelerator that would have been eclipsed in power by the Texas particle accelerator. And although there are other colliders in the United States - Fermilab outside Chicago and the Linear Collider at Stanford University in California - both labs are smaller than CERN.

Buck Jordan, of the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce, said the project's collapse cost 2,300 collider employees their jobs.

"It really hurt us to lose the kind of brain trust we had here," said Jordan, who headed the Energy Department's outplacement center for scientists seeking new employment. "Many scientists left and said they would never get involved with a U.S. government project again."

For a few residents, however, the collider's demise was a relief.

"They (the government) came in here and roughshodded over people. All these houses were just squished. Nobody talked about how sorry they were," said retired schoolteacher Dow Anna McGregor, who owned a house on property claimed by the government for the collider.

She refused to sell the home, which had been in her family for generations, and paid a company to move it a half mile beyond the supercollider's reach.

Ultimately, 800 to 900 property owners were displaced. Through recent legislation, however, the state has offered displaced owners first dibs on buying back any remaining property, said Reggie McElhannon, chief of staff for state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, a key supporter of the measure.

Prospective buyers of supercollider real estate now cruise around in luxury cars, surveying the property. And local industry is putting some of the buildings to good use.

"We're going to have our production lines out here and you wouldn't even be able to tell that the supercollider was here," said Craig Ladner, project leader at Tyler Refrigeration.

"If someone who worked on the supercollider walked into this place blindfolded and you took the blindfolds off, they probably wouldn't recognize where they are."