The intention of the collider was to let scientists probe "the ultimate nature of matter," as it is always put, by re-creating as nearly as possible the conditions in the universe during its first ten thousand billionths of a second. The plan was to fling particles through a tunnel fifty-two miles long, achieving a truly staggering ninety-nine trillion volts of energy. It was a grand scheme, but would also have cost $8 billion to build (a figure that eventually rose to $10 billion) and hundreds of millions of dollars a year to run.
In perhaps the finest example in history of pouring money into a hole in the ground, Congress spent $2 billion on the project, then canceled it in 1993 after fourteen miles of tunnel had been dug. So Texas now boasts the most expensive hole in the universe. The site is, I am told by my friend Jeff Guinn of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "essentially a vast, cleared field dotted along the circumference by a series of disappointed small towns."
Since the supercollider debacle particle physicists have set their sights a little lower, but even comparatively modest projects can be quite breathtakingly costly when compared with, well, almost anything. A proposed neutrino observatory at the old Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, would cost $500 million to build—this in a mine that is already dug—before you even look at the annual running costs. There would also be $281 million of "general conversion costs." A particle accelerator at Fermilab in Illinois, meanwhile, cost $260 million merely to refit.