Is China’s particle collider the Three Gorges Dam of Chinese physics?
China’s big particle collider project is stirring debate over its large cost and little practical value
Seven years ago, the world got confirmation of an important aspect of its own nature with a curious new finding. Scientists discovered the Higgs boson, known as the God particle, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), validating a theory for why particles have mass.
Just two months later, China announced that it’s creating its own particle collider called the Circular Electron Positron Collider (CEPC) to delve even deeper into how the universe was made. According to the plan, the construction could start as soon as 2020, with the entire project being completed by 2050 and costing US$21 billion.
The steep cost now has some calling the project the Three Gorges Dam of Chinese physics.
The massive hydroelectric gravity dam cost millions to build, but it never rid itself of controversy related to doubts about its usefulness and the people who were displaced for its construction.
Similar to grand engineering projects, particle physics is expensive. And like other basic science, the results often have no immediate practical use.
The collider is now raising questions about China’s role in science and its relation to national pride and personal vanity. The debate started from a single viral post on WeChat last week, causing a flurry of comments about whether China should pursue its particle physics dreams. Published by pop-sci account Cucu, the WeChat article accuses scientists of pursuing the collider for their own interests.
“It's good if the discussion is scientific and people are educated and not trying to fabricate facts or fabricate our opinions,” said Wang Yifang, director of the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Wang was the first to propose the idea of building the CEPC along with the Super Proton–Proton Collider (SppC) used for discovering new particles, which is part of the same project. He added that the type of debate triggered by the article isn’t helpful and could be damaging to science.
But despite the scientific holes in the article’s arguments, the question of whether it’s worthwhile to pursue big collider projects isn’t a new discussion. In China, the debate kicked off in 2016 following comments from physicist and Nobel laureate Yang Chenning.
Yang described the project as an investment “black hole.” He argued that China is still a developing country with hundreds of millions of farmers and migrant workers and has urgent environmental, educational and medical problems. Investing in a huge project like that would squeeze the funding for other sciences.
This argument isn’t limited to China. The US abandoned its Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), nicknamed the Desertron, in 1993 over budgeting and management issues. At the time, the construction had already begun, costing US$2 billion. It was a bitter lesson for the physics community.
Part of that community has also questioned the real benefits of particle colliders. Commenting on the debate that was sparked three years ago in China, physicist Jonathan Katz of Washington University called particle physics a “dying” branch of science. Some Chinese experts have agreed with that assessment, but others have offered counter-arguments.
Some say the country has already made great strides in many areas of science and technology, including artificial intelligence and quantum physics. A particle collider would not only be a boon for local scientists but would also attract experts and strengthen international cooperation -- not to mention the potential new discoveries.
For Wang, the costs are reasonable considering the benefits. Harvard professor Shingtung Yau also said that if research doesn’t continue, “China will indeed lose a once in a thousand years opportunity.”
Despite global debates, countries around the world have been making plans to build their own colliders. The US is even mulling a new machine called the Electron Ion Collider (EIC) to study the internal structure of atomic nuclei and protons. Japan has delayed a decision on hosting the US$7 billion International Linear Collider (ILC), which also studies the Higgs boson.
CERN itself has made multiple proposals that go beyond the Large Hadron Collider that made the Higgs boson discovery. This includes the Future Circular Collider (FCC) that could cost up to 21 billion euros (US$23.4 billion).
China also has other plans for particle physics. Another proposed project in the southern city of Huizhou called the Electron-Ion Collider of China (EICC) has been hailed as a “paradise for physicists.”
Postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University Yangyang Cheng, who has been working on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, believes many people around the world don't oppose future collider projects over questions of their scientific value. Rather, it’s because they believe that science funding is limited and that expensive particle physics projects will take away from other scientific projects.
“I say this notion is incorrect because this is not how government spending works,” she said. “Funding for science is a minuscule amount compared with funding for state tools of violence, the military and the police, both in the US and China.”
Regardless of where they’re built, the scientific value of colliders shouldn’t be discounted, according to Cheng. Any country that builds it also gains prestige. But she has her own reservations about China’s particle physics dream.
Particle colliders are by their nature international endeavors involving scientists from around the world. Scientists have argued that a project like this could bring two superpowers like China and the US closer together.
But Cheng believes that China could use access to the collider as leverage to pressure scientists to toe the line on political issues. Along with shrinking academic freedom, China has been pressuring other countries not to discuss subjects like reported human rights abuses against its Uygur ethinic minority.
“I find it deeply regrettable that scientists are often bold in their scientific vision, but do not have the courage to confront the political reality or acknowledge their complicity in it,” Cheng said.