Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Superduper

Consider the word "market." First, it suffered a certain aggrandizement and became "supermarket." Then, as compact supermarkets appeared on the scene, a new word was needed. The simplest solution would have been a return to "market." What in we ended up with instead was "superette," a curiously self-canceling word made of a prefix and a suffix with nothing in the middle.

Twenty years ago I took note in my Boston Globe column of the superfluity of "supers" in science. This was when American physicists were excited about building the superconducting supercollider in super-sized Texas, the proposed most powerful particle accelerating machine in the world. A supernova had just exploded in southern skies. The supersonic transport (SST) was in vogue as the Concorde zipped back and forth across the Atlantic. Everyone was talking about supercomputers, and physicists were all atwitter about superstrings, supersymmetry, and supergravity. Science was supersaturated with "supers."

The rush towards superfication seems to have subsided. Computers have raced past the ability of "super" to keep up. Superstrings and supersymmetry have more or less run out of gas for the time being. The SST is out of service. The superconducting supercollider got axed as too expensive, whereupon the Europeans stepped in to build the world's most powerful accelerator. It will soon be smashing particles, but is is modestly called the Large Hadron Collider.

Superconductivity is still with us -- the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity without resistance. At the moment, this only happens at very low temperatures, but the hope remains barely alive of discovering a material that is superconducting at room temperature, a development of staggering economic and scientific consequence.

Room-temperature superconductivity will require a name, and calling it supersuperconductivity may be carrying things too far. In my Globe column I suggested that the hoped-for phenomenon be called simply supertivity, a "superette" sort of word with no middle, superbly suited to its task.