Where do science supermachines go when they die?
By Kaspar Mossman (Image: Reidar Hahn/Fermilab) LIKE a man hoping to find a second-hand sports car at a knockdown price, Lon Morgan used to regularly peruse the for-sale ads in Commerce Business Daily. Then one day in 1995, Morgan saw exactly what he had been looking for and submitted a bid. Three weeks later, Morgan and his company International Isotopes were the proud owners of parts from the world’s biggest atom smasher for the princely sum of $4.5 million. Morgan had bought part of the defunct Superconducting Super Collider, a behemoth of a machine designed to search for the much vaunted Higgs boson, aka the God particle, which is supposed to give all other particles their mass. When funding for the 87-kilometre-round SSC was slashed in 1993 a cool $2 billion had already been spent. Now the huge tunnels in Waxahachie, Texas, sat dark and empty. Since the parts for the accelerator had never actually been assembled into a working machine, they sat crated up in a warehouse, awaiting their new owner and their new destiny. The tale of the SSC illustrates what can happen to big physics projects when the funding dries up. When a particle accelerator reaches the end of the road, the physicists hold a wake for the machine’s death. Then the electromagnets are powered down, the cryogenic liquids are drained and the lights are turned off. That much is certain. What happens next, though, is not. News of a project’s death travels, and soon scientists around the planet are competing for the chance to acquire some serious hardware. A hospital may need particle beams for cancer treatment,