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A “Great Collider” in China

13 October 2015
The Wall Street Journal publicizes a physics vision—but presents a contrary voice too.

The Wall Street Journal, echoing only a small amount of coverage elsewhere, has introduced nonscientist readers to the possibility of China’s assumption of world supercollider leadership. On 25 September, the WSJ ran a commentary under the headline “China’s great scientific leap forward: Completion of a planned ‘Great Collider’ would transform particle physics.” The high-profile coauthors were David J. Gross of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who is a recipient of the US National Medal of Science.

Gross and Witten cited the Chinese precedent of the quarter-century-old Beijing Electron–Positron Collider. They explained that starting in the 2020s, an envisioned new accelerator “will create very high-energy electron-positron collisions, revealing properties of the Higgs particle in much more detail than will be possible at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Starting in the 2030s, the goal is to collide protons at energies, again, far beyond the reach of the LHC to challenge our understanding and probe the unknown.”

They also invoked CERN’s precedent in the geopolitical realm:

CERN, which was founded in 1954, attracted scientists from around the globe and played an important role in establishing harmony in Europe after World War II. Scientific contacts between physicists in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. helped dampen the dangerous tensions between the two superpowers. With China emerging as a superpower in its own right, U.S.-Chinese collaboration on the Great Collider could play a similar role.

The envisioned research instrument has a website with a page that summarizes the plan:

The Circular Electron Positron Collider (CEPC) is a long-term collider project, which will be divided into two phases. The first phase will construct a circular electron-positron collider in a tunnel with a circumference of 50–70 km, and detectors installed at two interaction points. The machine is expected to collide electron and positron beams at the center-of-mass energy of 240–250 GeV, with an instantaneous luminosity of 2 × 1034 cm-2 s-1. The baseline design considers a single ring in a 50/70 km tunnel and electron/positron beams following a pretzelled orbit in the ring. CEPC will serve as a Higgs factory where precise measurement of Higgs properties will be its top priority. In addition, CEPC will allow stringent tests of the Standard Model (SM) with precision measurements at the Z pole and WW thresholds. The second phase of the project will upgrade the machine to a proton-proton collider with an unprecedented center-of-mass energy of 50–70 TeV. The machine will offer a unique opportunity for direct searches for new physics in the high-energy range far beyond LHC reach. Find out more in Prof. Yifang Wang’s talk.

Gross and Witten never mentioned a book to be released on 23 October, From the Great Wall to the Great Collider: China and the Quest to Uncover the Inner Workings of the Universe. Its coauthors are Steve Nadis, a science journalist who serves as a contributing editor for Astronomy and Discover magazines, and Shing-Tung Yau of Harvard University, who holds the National Medal of Science and reportedly serves as director of six mathematical institutes in China. The book’s summary webpage emphasizes that the envisioned collider “would transport physics into a previously inaccessible, high-energy realm where a host of new particles, and perhaps a sweeping new symmetry, might be found” and that it could add to knowledge about “the Big Bang, gravity, dark matter, dark energy, and other far-reaching phenomena.”

A Google News search yields little in major media about the collider, though it’s featured centrally in a current article appearing in both Quanta and Wired. Nature ran an article in July 2014. The American Physical Society has published a semi-insider’s brief technical view from Fermilab scientist emeritus Ernie Malamud, who went to China to help prepare the collider’s preliminary conceptual design report.

The WSJ also introduced its readers to collider-centered controversy over the future of physics. In a letter to the editor, physicist Jonathan Katz of Washington University in St. Louis called particle physics “moribund” and charged that it’s a “dying” branch of science, “stymied by the technological and economic difficulty of advancing beyond present particle accelerators.” He wrote:

The future of physics lies in such fields as atomic and condensed-matter physics. There, tabletop experiments of exquisite subtlety, with budgets in the hundreds of thousands, not tens of billions, promise (and have delivered) not only conceptual advances such as a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics but also the possibility of technological breakthroughs such as quantum computing.

Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” starved tens of millions. This “Great Scientific Leap Forward” promises to starve scientific progress.

Let hundreds of flowers bloom in laboratories around the world!


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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