How Texas Came Within an Atom's Breadth of Discovering the God Particle

How Texas Came Within an Atom's Breadth of Discovering the God Particle

Ryszard Stroynowski sat bathed in the pale glow of his laptop screen. At 2 in the morning of Independence Day, as the final, fugitive firecracker reports of the night crackled across a sleeping Dallas, the 65-year-old physicist was wide awake. As he watched the live broadcast in his pajamas, his colleagues at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, the locus of the physics universe, tolled the end of the search for an elusive force that had confounded them for half a century. It was the final puzzle piece in a theory that describes with unfathomable precision the fundamental particles of the universe and the laws they obey.

This piece, known as the Higgs boson and often referred to in the popular press as "the God particle," was detected in the largest scientific experiment ever devised. Inside a racetrack-shaped particle accelerator five miles across and spanning the borders of France and Switzerland, researchers had reproduced the first, violent moments of creation. By crossing opposing beams of protons powered by enough electrical current to flash-melt a ton of steel instantaneously, and guided by megalithic magnets ringing the accelerator's course, researchers induced collisions powerful enough to overcome the elemental forces that bind the proton's constituents. Out of the flashes of the collisions, they glimpsed the wraith-like field that allowed atoms and molecules, stars and planets, to coalesce out of chaos. What they found helped the shapeless take form.

"As a layman, I would now say I think we have it," said a beaming Rolf Heuer, director-general of CERN, to the experimenters, the press and to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

Stroynowski, an avuncular man with a smooth pate, a white corona of hair and pale gray eyes, already knew, had known for months. After all, he had crunched the numbers. He led the design and construction of the major component of a detector heavier than an aircraft carrier and as big as the science building at Southern Methodist University, where he teaches. It was called ATLAS, and it found the Higgs.

Stroynowski knew something else, too, a truth that had irrevocably altered his life, the lives of thousands of physicists and the future of North Texas, if not the state. Once upon a time, a tiny town known for its blackland prairie and cotton fields, just a straight shot south down Interstate 35 from Dallas, was physics' next frontier. In 1988, Ellis County was selected the winner in a heated nationwide competition to be the site for a particle accelerator that would dwarf the one in Geneva. In size, the leviathan's circumference would approach D.C.'s Beltway, some 54 miles around; big enough to envelop Waxahachie, and require the extinction of a nearby farming hamlet. The world's existing accelerators had taken physics as far as they could. The accelerator in Texas, called the Superconducting Super Collider, had the potential to take it further than any theorist could possibly dream, opening doors they could not predict.

Thousands of physicists from all over the world, including Stroynowski, pulled up stakes and migrated to the North Texas site as though it were Mecca, a holy place where the future of the field lay. They established physics departments at nearby universities and began construction of the Super Collider and the components they had to literally invent as they went along. But in 1993, after more than a decade of work and $2 billion spent, Congress canceled it. Its death rendered stillborn American hegemony in the physics world and drove a host of promising young minds from the field.

CERN would soon retrofit the tunnels of an existing accelerator for the Large Hadron Collider, a machine with a fraction of the Super Collider's power but designed nonetheless to fill the vacuum it left behind. The center of the physics world shifted back to Europe, along with all of the attendant jobs and industry required to make the search for the Higgs possible. The site of the greatest discovery of Stroynowski's career was confirmed not in another county, but on another continent.

To a scientist like Stroynowski, the advancement of knowledge is what matters, not the means used to achieve it, and the inescapable fact was that if America had completed the Super Collider, the Higgs would have been identified 10, even 15 years earlier. In that way, the Super Collider's demise reverberates still through the physics community. It's woven inextricably into the course of Stroynowski's life, and into the announcement he now bore witness to on a laptop screen, from half a world away.

President Ronald Reagan listened as his director of energy research laid out the justifications for the Superconducting Super Collider on January 29, 1987. At an estimated $4.4 billion, it would be the costliest and largest scientific experiment ever created, he explained. Europe now led the world of high-energy physics. Our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, was gaining ground. With Reagan's authorization, the United States could reclaim pre-eminence for years to come.


The odds looked long. The country was already facing a vast budget deficit. But Reagan's science adviser, George Keyworth, was the protégé of Edward Teller, the man behind the hydrogen bomb. If Keyworth would not support the kind of ambitious, even hubristic project intended to elevate the American physics community out of its also-ran status, no one would. Reagan, then in the penultimate year of presidency, recited a possibly apocryphal Jack London quotation: "I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze, than it should be stifled in dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, with every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet."

A sportswriter once asked the Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken "The Snake" Stabler what he thought London had meant, Reagan said. Stabler's reply was as succinct as the president's message: "Throw deep."

Nearly every state in the union bid to be the home of the Super Collider. Nevada Governor Richard Bryan called it "the most significant economic development plum of the last quarter of the 20th century." Locales as far-flung as Hudspeth County in West Texas and the famed King Ranch in South Texas vied for the privilege to host the project. By a resounding 75 percent, voters approved a state bond package for $1 billion to defray the cost of construction. It had the unwavering support of U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright, along with the rest of the state's delegation.

Texas was reeling from falling oil prices, a real estate bubble and the collapse of the savings and loan industry. The Super Collider was the psychological victory the state needed to wrest itself from the economic doldrums. Though the construction would employ some 4,000 only temporarily and 2,500 permanently, the spin-offs in superconducting technology, supercomputing, medical imaging and proton-beam cancer therapy created by a high-tech corridor flanking I-35 were the stuff of daydreams.

That is to say nothing of the quest itself, probing the mysteries of the improbable accident of life and answering a question that had hung awkwardly in the rarefied halls of the world's laboratories and universities for decades. Imagine a knife of infinite sharpness slicing an object into dust, then into vapor, then into molecules, then into atoms, then into protons and neutrons and finally into something so solid, so fundamental that it cannot be halved. The Standard Model of physics predicts this object, the quark, is the irreducible fundament of all matter — at least so far. Yet, in terms of tallying the mass of quarks, which comprise the tactile world, the Standard Model is conspicuously mum. We know that a stone has mass, so how can this possibly be? Was there something else imbuing the stars and planets and all the earthly things we can see and touch with mass? Why do they weigh anything at all?

Peter Higgs, a British theoretical physicist, proposed the answer in 1964 — a field through which all matter passes, like swimmers of varying prowess through water. This field, he proposed, imparted the quality of mass. It was an elegant theory, and if true, it was another step toward realizing Albert Einstein's dream of a variegated cosmos, explained with a single equation. The only way to prove Higgs' proposal would be to locate the field's conduit, the Higgs boson, a particle so short-lived it can barely be said to have existed. And the only way to peer into this ineffable quality of matter was to build a particle accelerator of unprecedented size and power, along with detectors weighing thousands of tons, and a supercomputing system unlike anything the world had ever seen.

Behind all the impenetrable mathematical calculations, finding the Higgs came down to a capital investment of billions of dollars.

The U.S. Department of Energy was prepared to make that investment. If the Higgs boson existed, the Super Collider would find it.

Winnowed down to two site proposals, one near Dallas, in Ellis County, and the second near Amarillo, Texas' bid weighed more than a ton and had to be flown to Washington on separate planes. But it was the Ellis County site, and a proposal from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, that received the most serious consideration. Fermilab already had a laboratory and tunnels that could be repurposed for the Super Collider. The site that would surround Waxahachie like a wheel around a hub would be built from scratch. But it had another advantage: geology. The formation below ground, known as Austin Chalk, was ideal for tunneling, supple yet strong enough to withstand subsurface pressures without wall bracing. What's more, the site had an international airport within striking distance capable of serving the physicists who would stream in and out from universities across the globe. "Even more important than that was the enthusiasm of the state and locality," said Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate and physicist at the University of Texas, who was a member of the site-selection committee.


On November 10, 1988, two days after the election of President George H.W. Bush, state District Judge Gene Knize in Waxahachie was handed a note as he presided over his court. According to an L.A. Times report, he "raised his arms and intoned, 'Super Collider, Super Collider, Super Collider.'" The judge called a recess. As the courtroom emptied onto the courthouse steps, a helicopter with a cameraman leaning out the door banked low. Until now, Ellis County was known for farmland and its soaring nine-story sandstone and pink granite courthouse, above which a Romanesque Revival clock tower rises over dun and red-brick storefronts. And it was known for its well-preserved gingerbread homes and the idyllic sweep of the countryside that provided the setting for Places in the Heart with Sally Fields, Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall, and Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Ellis County and Waxahachie, a town of some 18,000 souls, was known for something entirely different. "The town will never be the same," a county Democratic Party chair told a reporter.

Neither, for that matter, would Ryszard Stroynowski.

Stroynowski grew up in the blasted ruin of Warsaw, Poland. He was born nine months after the end of World War II, after the Soviet Red Army drove Nazi German forces from his country. He was a toddler when the Soviet Union consolidated its political stranglehold in Poland and throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. He was a young boy building small rockets out of unspent bullets he found in the street when factory workers in Poznan´, protesting Communist rule and abhorrent working conditions, were slaughtered by the government.

His father, Juliusz Stroynowski, was a historian and journalist who covered the powder-keg topic of deteriorating relations between the Catholic Church and the regime. He couldn't get work because he'd been blacklisted by the Communist government. Instead, he translated books.

Stroynowski entered the University of Warsaw at the age of 17. He was interested in Romance languages and archeology, but his mind had a mathematical bent and physics was its outlet. In the face of repression and arbitrary bureaucracy, physics was immutable. Its pursuit had nothing to do with wealth or party connections; this internal life of the mind was boundless. The world of particle physics at that time was in the midst of a renaissance, enjoying global support in an era of escalating tensions between Western powers and the Soviet Union.

Stroynowski doesn't like to talk about his exit from Poland at the age of 23, but it coincided with the Soviet and Eastern Bloc invasion of Czechoslovakia, a country convulsed by waves of opposition to Communist Party restrictions. It became known as the Prague Spring, and it ignited in Poland an uprising among students and the intelligentsia. It was met with brutal suppression from police and mass academic expulsions. Stroynowski emigrated to Switzerland, where he was hired at CERN, the capital of particle physics research in Europe. CERN was bringing online the world's first proton-proton collider, the precursor of today's Large Hadron Collider. After five years, Stroynowski traveled to the United States and took a position as a staff physicist at Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center. To this day, you cannot author a paper about a certain type of quark without citing his work. In 1980, he became a senior researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

A few years later, the international physics community was beginning to plan its next big experiment. Consensus was steadily growing, though schisms remained on exactly what form the next accelerator should take. Most physicists agreed that if they wanted to ask the big questions, if they wanted to delve into the Higgs and the origins of mass, or to stumble upon something completely unforeseen, they would have to build big. One could take the measure of a country's dominance in high-energy physics by the investment it was willing to make in complex, gargantuan accelerators. The United States was determined that the next step be taken on American soil. The concept that emerged was dubbed the "Desertron," because it would be massive, likely built in some sparsely populated corner of America.

When Stroynowski moved to Dallas in 1991, that corner was Waxahachie. "This was the place to be," he says. He felt like a pioneer setting off on a journey, leaving behind the comfort of sunny California for a land of tornadoes, blue northers and Baptists. He would exchange a prominent physics research institute for a private liberal-arts college with no physics department whatsoever. He would lead SMU's high-energy physics group and design a solenoid magnet many times larger than Stonehenge slabs. The prospect, he says, was "better than sex." There was a virgin frontier waiting for him on the wide Texas prairie.


As a cylindrical machine the size of a locomotive carved the Austin Chalk beneath Ellis County at record pace in 1991, the Superconducting Super Collider was already in trouble. By the time President George H.W. Bush took office, the $4.3 billion project had ballooned to nearly $6 billion to allow for inflation and the cost of detectors, each so huge they would barely fit inside the Cotton Bowl. Bush chose as his energy secretary Admiral James Watkins, a former chief of naval operations who served under Admiral Hyman Rickover, the man known as "The Father of the Nuclear Navy." Under Reagan, Rickover regularly battled with defense contractors over shoddy workmanship and cost overruns, most famously involving nuclear submarines. By some accounts, Watkins brought the same iron-fisted approach to the Super Collider. He removed physicists from key decision-making roles and replaced them with Department of Energy bureaucrats. "[The government] has had bad experiences with private industries," Stroynowski recalls. "They suck the money out of government, while the scientists only want to be efficient and effective."

Stroynowski and his colleagues were unlikely to bill the federal government for $600 toilet seats, yet they were nonetheless subject to the keen hyper-vigilance of their DOE overseers. His charge was to lead a program to design the largest magnet in the world, but his time was consumed by organizing separate meetings for the scientists and the DOE bureaucrats, who he says rarely communicated. "I know I spent $25 million over three years, and a fair fraction went to organizing the meetings; 25 people for three days, a thousand dollars each."

In 1991, a potential flaw was identified in the design of the 10,000 15-ton magnets, each built to guide the beam of hurtling protons around the 54-mile ring at nearly light speed. The aperture the beam passes through might be too small, they theorized. Unless it was widened, they could not guarantee the integrity of the Super Collider. It could be fixed, but the price would be dear. The same year, the first U.S. House vote to kill the Super Collider failed. Yet it made clear that the once-widespread congressional support the project enjoyed had eroded after the specter of an economic boon evaporated everywhere but Texas. Nor were international cash contributions to its construction forthcoming, though Bush ardently pursued a potential $2 billion Japanese pledge. It shouldn't have been surprising that a project billed by Reagan as an American coup for supremacy in high-energy physics would receive a cool reception from the rest of the world.

"They made a conscious decision early in the Reagan administration to try and not raise foreign money," said Vigdor Teplitz, then the SMU physics chair and senior international coordination adviser. That the project faced the budget ax year in, year out, didn't inspire confidence either. The magnet redesign and the lack of foreign funding forced the Department of Energy to revise upward its estimate to $8.6 billion. Congress saw this as the latest in a series of broken promises. Representative Don Ritter, a Pennsylvania Republican, began calling the Super Collider a "quark-barrel project."

"The only things that will be colliding under the lands of Texas are taxpayers' dollars," Louisiana Congressman Henson Moore quipped at a June 1992 House vote on the fate of the Super Collider.

Representative Joe Barton of Ellis County explained to a House full of deficit hawks that the more than $600 million in appropriations slated for the Super Collider that year wouldn't be diverted to the deficit. But the scattered opposition to the project had stiffened. There was no opposing superpower in the East with which to galvanize support. That day, the House voted again to cancel the Super Collider. The Senate, along with a House-Senate conference committee, saved the project from an early, ignominious death.

The following month, a lame-duck Bush spoke about his jobs plan and the need to stimulate an American economy limping out of a downturn. His remarks were delivered at a Super Collider laboratory deep in Ellis County farm country to members of the project and the press. "History has shown again and again that by pushing technology to ever-higher levels of accomplishment, we can achieve immensely practical consequences," the president began. "To give you just one example, at Argonne Laboratories years ago, scientists were trying to purify liquid hydrogen for use with what was then the world's largest accelerator. They ended up figuring out a way to make artificial kidneys for just $15 apiece. That resulted from this fundamental science. The same kind of developments will occur right here, on a scale never before imagined. Here, for example, is where a new electronics industry is going to be born."


Then he appealed more broadly to the national thirst for human endeavors that capture the imagination, the way President John F. Kennedy's exhortations dared America to reach for the moon. A battle was being waged in Congress, Bush said, between "the patrons of the past and the architects of the future."

But the battle was decided the moment Bush left office. President Bill Clinton was not yet up to speed on the project, and his support for it was tepid at best. After scandal forced the resignation of U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright of Fort Worth, the power of the Texas delegation was on the wane. The Super Collider was competing with the International Space Station for funding. Congress was unlikely to send billions to NASA in Houston and Waxahachie. "I have often said, on the one hand, the (Super Collider) was too big," said Fred Gilman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who was the head of the Super Collider research division. "And on the other, it was too small." In other words, it was too big because it was a federal line-item, and too small because the space station was much more expensive, with pork distributed throughout the 50 states. It didn't hurt that it had the steadfast support of Vice President Al Gore.

As a part of Clinton's deficit-reduction strategy, yearly funding for the Super Collider was reduced and the project drawn out from a projected 1999 completion to 2003. Even at lower funding levels, there was still overhead and salaries to be paid, the veritable standing army. The Super Collider would now cost some $10 billion, twice the initial estimate. Congress had finally had enough. "I know for a fact Clinton was gauging his position," said Roy Schwitters, the director of the Super Collider project. "The homework was being done, but it was getting late in the game. That crucial vote came up in June, and that was too big to get put back together again by the Senate." A 10-year odyssey ended with a single vote to cancel by a 2-to-1 margin. The 15 miles of tunnel would be sealed off. Some $2 billion would be lost. The $640 million allotted to the project that year would be used instead to wind it down. The greatest scientific experiment in the history of man, championed through two Republican presidencies, met its end under a Democrat.

"This project was an important element of our nation's science program," Clinton said after signing the bill. "And its termination is a serious loss for the field of high-energy physics."

Physics knew no politics. Physics persisted even as regimes fell. That was the cruel irony for Stroynowski. Here was a man who escaped an oppressive Communist government, finding refuge in elegant mathematical theories describing the laws of nature, only to become a casualty of budgetary politics, the very partisan machinations he tried to avoid all his life.

The cancelation sparked a mass exodus of physicists from North Texas. Some found academic positions. Some joined high-energy labs near Chicago, at Stanford and at CERN. Others left the field entirely. An esoteric specialty like high-energy physics certainly wasn't prepared to absorb hundreds of simultaneously out-of-work researchers. "I had a house in Dallas, and I lost all the equity," said Cas Milner, who had worked on the Super Collider for four years. "I had to take a check on the closing. I think in the modern parlance it's called being underwater."

Academic positions were slow in coming, but Wall Street was ready to put Milner's mathematical talents to work.

Others, like Kaushik De, a Calcutta-born experimentalist, remained at the University of Texas at Arlington, now one of five supercomputing sites in the country crunching data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. He would eventually develop a system allowing physicists to access the computing power of thousands of supercomputing sites all over the world.

Stroynowski could not bring himself to leave the researchers he had attracted to SMU, or the grad students who had enrolled. His program went on to design part of the ATLAS detector at CERN. The collider produces astronomical amounts of data. Stroynowski's program created data links capable of transmitting enough information to fill the equivalent of 100 CDs per second, or a stack of them more than 12 miles high in a single day — the fastest anywhere in the world. He was also tasked with managing the design and construction of the liquid argon calorimeter, a fine structure of lead and stainless steel capable of tracking hundreds of millions of proton collisions each second. And out of those numbers beyond counting, they glimpsed the ephemeral conduit of the Higgs field, like a shadow on the wall with no form to cast it.


To an exacting scientific certainty, known as 5 sigma, they announced on July 4, 2012, that where we once believed there was nothing, something, in fact, exists.

Drive west from Waxahachie along a farm-to-market road if you want to see what the dried-out hull of a dream looks like. Follow it out past fields of maize and sunflowers ready for harvest, past grazing cattle and ranchettes set out on cleared pasture, subdivided after the collapse of the Super Collider, when all that land taken through eminent domain was thrown back into the county's lap. Before long, a collection of rectangular, gray buildings, some the length of two football fields, slide into view. Imagine, beneath all this greenery, a 15-mile catacomb light will never again touch slowly filling with water.

The asphalt drive leading into the complex is broken, and weeds grow through the cracks. A faded sign warns trespassers to "KEEP OUT" of a place few have bothered to enter in years. The inevitable march from order to decay has kept its grim pace; Stroynowski would call it entropy.

Just short of four years ago, the first proton beams raced down the 17-mile Large Hadron Collider in Geneva near light speed. It would take as many years to find the key to mass in the universe. It's tempting to imagine what physicists like Stroynowski could have found with the Super Collider, with the 10-year head start it could have given them. Who could possibly predict what else a machine three times more powerful than the accelerator in Geneva would find in those tiny flashes of ancient fire?

"The questions don't go away because the politicians say so," Stroynowski says. "Scientific questions remain, and if not us, somebody else will answer them."

The answers will never come from here, where men sweep stones from the cracked road, and others erect chain-link fencing around the complex's perimeter. MagnaBlend, a custom chemical manufacturer, recently purchased the site to replace its old factory, which burned in an October chemical fire that sent gouts of smoke floating over Ellis County. Here, they won't plumb the mystery of creation. They will mix, among other things, fracking fluids.

It's a fitting Texas ending to a story so unlikely it could have been fiction. Out on this back road, you will find the remains of the Super Collider, a monument to an inconceivable future.

Kaushik De, a physics professor at UTA, in a room full of computer servers that processed data that helped locate the Higgs boson.
Mark Graham

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