Capturing the Elusive Echo of Why

Seeking meaning in life after decades of alcoholism and apparently random tragedy.


| Summer 2017



Supercollider

Current state of the Superconducting Super Collider site in Waxahachie, Texas. This is a view of the Magnet Development Laboratory building, with other buildings visible in the background.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/bomazi

The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man. — Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.43

In an alternate world, the Superconducting Super Collider would have been housed in a squat gray block in Waxahachie, Texas, but instead the overbudget and behind-schedule dream of it died in the fall of 1993. Beneath the building, there still lie the unfinished tunnels — which eventually would have spanned a 54-mile ellipse — around which protons would have raced through massive magnets at high energies and crashed together over and over and over again, the ghostly aftereffects of their collisions revealing glimpses of the unseeable.

Had the SSC been built, the United States may well have been host to the discovery of the Higgs boson — also known as the God Particle — a discovery that would perhaps have happened even sooner than the announcement in 2012 by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, that earned Peter Higgs the Nobel.

The history of the SSC, the world’s most expensive and advanced physics experiment that never was, is interesting and complicated but I’m going to boil it down for now to this: Republicans in Congress viewed spending money on smashing elementary particles together to gain new knowledge about the universe and everything in it as extravagant. As Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said in 1993, “I doubt anyone believes that the most pressing issues facing the nation include an insufficient understanding of the origins of the universe.”

For nearly 20 years thereafter, the husk of the abandoned SSC sat outside Waxahachie, accumulating graffiti and used only for “alcohol and drug parties,” by one account. The SSC would have been bigger and more ambitious than the Large Hadron Collider built by CERN. By far. The possibility of discovery that the SSC project represented became instead a sign of decline: the U.S. would not lead the world in this scientific arena; Waxahachie would not be the site of this historic undertaking, but would spend two decades waiting for someone to occupy the building. (In 2012, around the time the Higgs was being announced by CERN, a local chemical company named Magnablend bought the SSC. They kept the acronym, calling the facility their Specialty Services Complex, renovated it, and put it to use — despite public fears and a 2015 chemical leak that resulted in an explosion and evacuation — so in this way, the building remained a place in which substances are changed into other substances.)

The AA meeting I went to was not in Waxahachie but farther east, in a low, lonely building with corrugated metal siding and a conspicuous sign. The wood-paneled, linoleum-lined room with its folding tables and chairs recalled the upstairs of the fire station in the town where I grew up, which was where I attended Boy Scouts meetings for a couple years. On one of the first evenings I attended AA, the topic was, approximately, “What the 12th Step Means to You.” The 12th step is about carrying AA’s message to the alcoholic who still suffers after one has had “a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps.” When it came my turn to speak — it was a small group and, barring verbalized abstention, everyone spoke — I tried to go honestly at the heart of the thing I had been struggling with about AA. I named myself, confessed or diagnosed I was an alcoholic, and admitted I’d only been coming to meetings for a week or so. Thus, I had nothing to say about the 12th step, but what I was looking at and really resisting was the underlying premise most explicitly stated in Step 3, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”