I remember reading a historical overview of particle accelerators, which had a section devoted to the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). The SSC was partially constructed, in the early 1990s, but was cancelled after Congress stopped funding the project.

The section contained an anecdote from congressional hearings about whether or not to continue funding the SSC, where a physicist involved in the project defended the project by talking about how a nation should ask itself if it is a nation of great artists and great poets, and that science should be just as important a cultural asset as art and poetry.

Regrettably, I can't remember the quote or the physicist who said it, although I remember that it was the most eloquent defense of science funding I've ever read. Who was the physicist, and what was the quote?

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    $\begingroup$ Wasn't it Steven Weinberg? He discusses the project in his 1992 Dreams of a Final Theory. The other likely source was Leon Lederman (history.fnal.gov/lederman_quotes.html) But I think I know what you are talking about and that was Weinberg. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 21:36

2 Answers 2


Fermilab director R. R. Wilson’s Congressional Testimony (April 17, 1969, p. 113):

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so. (...) It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.


SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a great testimony. $\endgroup$
    – Francesco
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 8:44

Following the suggestion by @Guido Jorg I have found this article by Steven Weinberg published in The New York Review of Books on the May 10, 2012 issue.

It's called The Crisis of Big Science and it contains the following quotes:

Then in 1992 the House of Representatives canceled funding for the SSC. Funding was restored by a House–Senate conference committee, but the next year the same happened again, and this time the House would not go along with the recommendation of the conference committee. After the expenditure of almost two billion dollars and thousands of man-years, the SSC was dead.

One thing that killed the SSC was an undeserved reputation for over-spending. There was even nonsense in the press about spending on potted plants for the corridors of the administration building. Projected costs did increase, but the main reason was that, year by year, Congress never supplied sufficient funds to keep to the planned rate of spending. This stretched out the time and hence the cost to complete the project. Even so, the SSC met all technical challenges, and could have been completed for about what has been spent on the LHC, and completed a decade earlier.

Spending for the SSC had become a target for a new class of congressmen elected in 1992. They were eager to show that they could cut what they saw as Texas pork, and they didn’t feel that much was at stake. The cold war was over, and discoveries at the SSC were not going to produce anything of immediate practical importance. Physicists can point to technological spin-offs from high-energy physics, ranging from synchotron radiation to the World Wide Web. For promoting invention, big science in this sense is the technological equivalent of war, and it doesn’t kill anyone. But spin-offs can’t be promised in advance.

What really motivates elementary particle physicists is a sense of how the world is ordered—it is, they believe, a world governed by simple universal principles that we are capable of discovering. But not everyone feels the importance of this. During the debate over the SSC, I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was “No.”

The article makes for a very interesting, if sad, read. If a personal comment is allowed, it seems to me that in the years which have elapsed since then, the picture has not improved.


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