CATCH it while you can: 20th anniversary of the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider

October 21 marks the 20th anniversary of the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). Researcher Allison Marsh investigates what the Smithsonian collected to document the project, including the Citizens Against the Collider Here (CATCH) campaign.

How do you collect and preserve the history of a project that was never completed? That was the challenge faced by curators working on the now-closed exhibition Science in American Life in 1993 when Congress cancelled funding for the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC).

A photo from the "Science of American Life" exhibition installation process. The SSC section of the "Science in American Life" exhibition being dismantled after the exhibition ended. In the rear, there is a mock-up of a section of the accelerator. The red cyclinders represent twim beam tubes of the accelerator mounted as they would apepar in the tunnel. In foreground, two cross-sections of the magnets are on the floor. The left side of the exhibition dealt with controversy about the SSC's location.
The Superconducting Super Collider section of the "Science in American Life" exhibition being dismantled after the exhibition ended. In the rear, there is a mock-up of a section of the accelerator. The red cyclinders represent twin beam tubes of the accelerator mounted as they would appear in the tunnel. In foreground, two cross-sections of the magnets are on the floor. The left side of the exhibition dealt with controversy about the super collider's location.
 

The SSC was set to be the world's largest, most powerful particle accelerator. It was designed to launch beams of protons in opposite directions through a 54-mile ring, beneath the ground in Waxahachie, Texas. Where the beams intersected, 100 million collisions per second occurred. From these proton collisions, physicists hoped, would fly quarks of every mass and flavor; mysterious heavy twins of particles already known; and just maybe, the elusive Higgs boson.

In Science in American Life, curators wanted to use the SSC to highlight the politics of Big Science and the contest over where to locate the multi-billion-dollar collider. Before Congress selected Waxahachie as its home, there was a national search for potential sites.

1 - labeled cross-section of a magnet, which was mounted separately on the wall
Labeled cross-section of a magnet, which was mounted separately on the wall in the "Science of American Life" exhibition

Former curator Pat Gossell collected materials to document local protest and support of this monumental project, which are now housed in the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. The story she documented of Mary Lou and Jim Alexander shows how community organizers can affect major scientific projects.

When Mary Lou and Jim Alexander learned that the state of New York had submitted their hometown of Ontario to the national competition for the future site of the SSC, they were shocked. Why hadn't anyone talked to the local residents about the proposal? Who thought it was a good idea? They certainly didn't. Their initial shock quickly turned to motivation. The Alexanders formed a grassroots campaign they named CATCH: Citizens Against the Collider Here.

A petition against the SCC
A petition against locating the SSC in Wayne or Monroe counties in New York


Mary Lou and Jim invited friends and neighbors into their home to start strategizing. Most CATCH members were not anti-science, nor were they against the SSC as a concept. The diverse group, which included scientists and engineers from local companies such as Kodak and Xerox, were simply against the building of the SSC in their own hometown. And so they focused their opposition on countering statements in the official SSC site proposal. In the end, CATCH was able to collect petitions signed by approximately 19,300 residents opposing the Rochester site.

Two collider-related bumper stickers in the collection of the museum's Archives Center
Two collider-related bumper stickers in the collection of the museum's Archives Center. [Superconducting Super Collider Collection, NMAH.AC.0538.]

The National Research Council drew attention to the numerous letters of opposition from Rochester in their report assessing the feasibility of each proposed site for the SSC. Although the committee was unable to include this supplemental information in their technical evaluation of the sites, in the case of New York, they made a direct recommendation to the Department of Energy: "look closely at the extent to which vocal opposition represents a true absence of local support."

Additional CATCH campaigns developed in other cities, and the Smithsonian collected buttons, bumper stickers, flyers, and petitions to document the opposition. As a collection these materials can be used to show NIMBY-ism, or the Not In My Back Yard form of protest.

Bumper sticker of an Illinois-based group against the siting of the collider in their area
Bumper sticker of an Illinois-based group against siting of the collider in the state. [Superconducting Super Collider Collection, NMAH.AC.0538.]

Big Science involves Big Money, and when competing political interests collide, it can lead to Big Disruptions.

When Congress eventually cancelled the partially constructed SSC, they left museum curator Art Molella with a hole in his exhibition. Although he had already spent two years negotiating the acquisition of sample superconducting magnets for the museum's collection, the Department of Energy said the deal was off.Correspondence in the Smithsonian Institution Archives shows how the museum finally acquired two short sections of the accelerator magnets mounted on a support as in the actual accelerator and two separate cross sections of magnets without supports.

On the 20th anniversary of the cancellation of the biggest physics project in the U.S., physicists can contemplate what might have been discovered in Texas. But museum visitors can think about how citizen activists are sometimes motivated to try to influence the politics of Big Science. 

Allison Marsh is an assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina. She has spent significant time researching in the engineering collections. She can be reached at marsha@mailbox.sc.edu. Lizzie Wade, a correspondent for Science contributed to this post.

Posted at 10:00 am EDT