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
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.
“It's good if the discussion is scientific and people are educated and not trying to fabricate facts or fabricate our opinions,” said Wang Yifeng, 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.
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.
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.
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 Chen. Any country that builds it also gains prestige. But she has her own reservations about China’s particle physics dream.
“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,” Chen said.