Chen-Ning Yang is perhaps China’s most famous particle physicists. Together with Tsung-Dao Lee, he won the Nobel prize in 1957 for discovering that the laws of physics known the difference between left and right. He helped create Yang–Mills theory: the theory that describes all the forces in nature except gravity. He helped find the Yang–Baxter equation, which describes what particles do when they move around on a thin sheet of matter, tracing out braids.
Right now the world of particle physics is in a shocked, somewhat demoralized state because the Large Hadron Collider has not yet found any physics beyond the Standard Model. Some Chinese scientists want to forge ahead by building an even more powerful, even more expensive accelerator.
But Yang recently came out against this. This is a big deal, because he is very prestigious, and only China has the will to pay for the next machine. The director of the Chinese institute that wants to build the next machine, Wang Yifeng, issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Yang the very next day.
Over on G+, Willie Wong translated some of Wang’s rebuttal in some comments to my post on this subject. The real goal of my post here is to make this translation a bit easier to find—not because I agree with Wang, but because this discussion is important: it affects the future of particle physics.
First let me set the stage. In 2012, two months after the Large Hadron Collider found the Higgs boson, the Institute of High Energy Physics proposed a bigger machine: the Circular Electron Positron Collider, or CEPC.
This machine would be a ring 100 kilometers around. It would collide electrons and positrons at an energy of 250 GeV, about twice what you need to make a Higgs. It could make lots of Higgs bosons and study their properties. It might find something new, too! Of course that would be the hope.
It would cost $6 billion, and the plan was that China would pay for 70% of it. Nobody knows who would pay for the rest.
According to Science:
On 4 September, Yang, in an article posted on the social media platform WeChat, says that China should not build a supercollider now. He is concerned about the huge cost and says the money would be better spent on pressing societal needs. In addition, he does not believe the science justifies the cost: The LHC confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, he notes, but it has not discovered new particles or inconsistencies in the standard model of particle physics. The prospect of an even bigger collider succeeding where the LHC has failed is “a guess on top of a guess,” he writes. Yang argues that high-energy physicists should eschew big accelerator projects for now and start blazing trails in new experimental and theoretical approaches.
That same day, IHEP’s director, Wang Yifang, posted a point-by-point rebuttal on the institute’s public WeChat account. He criticized Yang for rehashing arguments he had made in the 1970s against building the BECP. “Thanks to comrade [Deng] Xiaoping,” who didn’t follow Yang’s advice, Wang wrote, “IHEP and the BEPC … have achieved so much today.” Wang also noted that the main task of the CEPC would not be to find new particles, but to carry out detailed studies of the Higgs boson.
Yang did not respond to request for comment. But some scientists contend that the thrust of his criticisms are against the CEPC’s anticipated upgrade, the Super Proton-Proton Collider (SPPC). “Yang’s objections are directed mostly at the SPPC,” says Li Miao, a cosmologist at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, in China, who says he is leaning toward supporting the CEPC. That’s because the cost Yang cites—$20 billion—is the estimated price tag of both the CEPC and the SPPC, Li says, and it is the SPPC that would endeavor to make discoveries beyond the standard model.
Still, opposition to the supercollider project is mounting outside the high-energy physics community. Cao Zexian, a researcher at CAS’s Institute of Physics here, contends that Chinese high-energy physicists lack the ability to steer or lead research in the field. China also lacks the industrial capacity for making advanced scientific instruments, he says, which means a supercollider would depend on foreign firms for critical components. Luo Huiqian, another researcher at the Institute of Physics, says that most big science projects in China have suffered from arbitrary cost cutting; as a result, the finished product is often a far cry from what was proposed. He doubts that the proposed CEPC would be built to specifications.
The state news agency Xinhua has lauded the debate as “progress in Chinese science” that will make big science decision-making “more transparent.” Some, however, see a call for transparency as a bad omen for the CEPC. “It means the collider may not receive the go-ahead in the near future,” asserts Institute of Physics researcher Wu Baojun. Wang acknowledged that possibility in a 7 September interview with Caijing magazine: “opposing voices naturally have an impact on future approval of the project,” he said.
Willie Wong’s prefaced his translation of Wang’s rebuttal with this:
Here is a translation of the essential parts of the rebuttal; some standard Chinese language disclaimers of deference etc are omitted. I tried to make the translation as true to the original as possible; the viewpoints expressed are not my own.
Here is the translation:
Today (September 4) published the article by CN Yang titled “China should not build an SSC today”. As a scientist who works on the front line of high energy physics and the current director of the the high energy physics institute in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I cannot agree with his viewpoint.
(A) The first reason to Dr. Yang’s objection is that a supercollider is a bottomless hole. His objection stemmed from the American SSC wasting 3 billion US dollars and amounted to naught. The LHC cost over 10 billion US dollars. Thus the proposed Chinese accelerator cannot cost less than 20 billion US dollars, with no guaranteed returns. [Ed: emphasis original]
Here, there are actually three problems. The first is “why did SSC fail”? The second is “how much would a Chinese collider cost?” And the third is “is the estimate reasonable and realistic?” Here I address them point by point.
(1) Why did the American SSC fail? Are all colliders bottomless pits?
The many reasons leading to the failure of the American SSC include the government deficit at the time, the fight for funding against the International Space Station, the party politics of the United States, the regional competition between Texas and other states. Additionally there are problems with poor management, bad budgeting, ballooning construction costs, failure to secure international collaboration. See references [2,3] [Ed: consult original article for references; items 1-3 are English language]. In reality, “exceeding the budget” is definitely not the primary reason for the failure of the SSC; rather, the failure should be attributed to some special and circumstantial reasons, caused mainly by political elements.
For the US, abandoning the SSC was a very incorrect decision. It lost the US the chance for discovering the Higgs Boson, as well as the foundations and opportunities for future development, and thereby also the leadership position that US has occupied internationally in high energy physics until then. This definitely had a very negative impact on big science initiatives in the US, and caused one generation of Americans to lose the courage to dream. The reasons given by the American scientific community against the SSC are very similar to what we here today against the Chinese collider project. But actually the cancellation of the SSC did not increase funding to other scientific endeavors. Of course, activation of the SSC would not have reduced the funding to other scientific endeavors, and many people who objected to the project are not regretting it.
Since then, LHC was constructed in Europe, and achieved great success. Even though its construction exceeded its original budget, but not by a lot. This shows that supercollider projects do not have to be bottomless, and has a chance to succeed.
The Chinese political landscape is entirely different from that of the US. In particular, for large scale constructions, the political system is superior. China has already accomplished to date many tasks which the Americans would not, or could not do; many more will happen in the future. The failure of SSC doesn’t mean that we cannot do it. We should scientifically analyze the situation, and at the same time foster international collaboration, and properly manage the budget.
(2) How much would it cost? Our planned collider (using circumference of 100 kilometers for computations) will proceed in two steps. [Ed: details omitted. The author estimated that the electron-positron collider will cost 40 Billion Yuan, followed by the proton-proton collider which will cost 100 billion Yuan, not accounting for inflation. With approximately 10 year construction time for each phase.] The two-phase planning is to showcase the scientific longevity of the project, especially entrainment of other technical development (e.g. high energy superconductors), and that the second phase [ed: the proton-proton collider] is complementary to the scientific and technical developments of the first phase. The reason that the second phase designs are incorporated in the discussion is to prevent the scenario where design elements of the first phase inadvertently shuts off possibility of further expansion in the second phase.
(3) Is this estimate realistic? Are we going to go down the same road as the American SSC?
First, note that in the past 50 years , there were many successful colliders internationally (LEP, LHC, PEPII, KEKB/SuperKEKB etc) and many unsuccessful ones (ISABELLE, SSC, FAIR, etc). The failed ones are all proton accelerators. All electron colliders have been successful. The main reason is that proton accelerators are more complicated, and it is harder to correctly estimate the costs related to constructing machines beyond the current frontiers.
There are many successful large-scale constructions in China. In the 40 years since the founding of the high energy physics institute, we’ve built [list of high energy experiment facilities, I don’t know all their names in English], each costing over 100 million Yuan, and none are more than 5% over budget, in terms of actual costs of construction, time to completion, meeting milestones. We have a well developed expertise in budget, construction, and management.
For the CEPC (electron-positron collider) our estimates relied on two methods:
(i) Summing of the parts: separately estimating costs of individual elements and adding them up.
(ii) Comparisons: using costs for elements derived from costs of completed instruments both domestically and abroad.
At the level of the total cost and at the systems level, the two methods should produce cost estimates within 20% of each other.
After completing the initial design [ref. 1], we produced a list of more than 1000 required equipments, and based our estimates on that list. The estimates are refereed by local and international experts.
For the SPPC (the proton-proton collider; second phase) we only used the second method (comparison). This is due to the second phase not being the main mission at hand, and we are not yet sure whether we should commit to the second phase. It is therefore not very meaningful to discuss its potential cost right now. We are committed to only building the SPPC once we are sure the science and the technology are mature.
(B) The second reason given by Dr. Yang is that China is still a developing country, and there are many social-economic problems that should be solved before considering a supercollider.
Any country, especially one as big as China, must consider both the immediate and the long-term in its planning. Of course social-economic problems need to be solved, and indeed solving them is taking currently the lions share of our national budget. But we also need to consider the long term, including an appropriate amount of expenditures on basic research, to enable our continuous development and the potential to lead the world. The China at the end of the Qing dynasty has a rich populace with the world’s highest GDP. But even though the government has the ability to purchase armaments, the lack of scientific understanding reduced the country to always be on the losing side of wars.
In the past few hundred years, developments into understanding the structure of matter, from molecules, atoms, to the nucleus, the elementary particles, all contributed and led the scientific developments of their era. High energy physics pursue the finest structure of matter and its laws, the techniques used cover many different fields, from accelerator, detectors, to low temperature, superconducting, microwave, high frequency, vacuum, electronic, high precision instrumentation, automatic controls, computer science and networking, in many ways led to the developments in those fields and their broad adoption. This is a indicator field in basic science and technical developments. Building the supercollider can result in China occupying the leadership position in such diverse scientific fields for several decades, and also lead to the domestic production of many of the important scientific and technical instruments. Furthermore, it will allow us to attract international intellectual capital, and allow the training of thousands of world-leading specialists in our institutes. How is this not an urgent need for the country?
In fact, the impression the Chinese government and the average Chinese people create for the world at large is a populace with lots of money, and also infatuated with money. It is hard for a large country to have a international voice and influence without significant contribution to the human culture. This influence, in turn, affects the benefits China receive from other countries. In terms of current GDP, the proposed project (including also the phase 2 SPPC) does not exceed that of the Beijing positron-electron collider completed in the 80s, and is in fact lower than LEP, LHC, SSC, and ILC.
Designing and starting the construction of the next supercollider within the next 5 years is a rare opportunity to let us achieve a leadership position internationally in the field of high energy physics. The newly discovered Higgs boson has a relatively low mass, which allows us to probe it further using a circular positron-electron collider. Furthermore, such colliders has a chance to be modified into proton colliders. This facility will have over 5 decades of scientific use. Furthermore, currently Europe, US, and Japan all already have scientific items on their agenda, and within 20 years probably cannot construct similar facilities. This gives us an advantage in competitiveness. Thirdly, we already have the experience building the Beijing positron-electron collider, so such a facility is in our strengths. The window of opportunity typically lasts only 10 years, if we miss it, we don’t know when the next window will be. Furthermore, we have extensive experience in underground construction, and the Chinese economy is currently at a stage of high growth. We have the ability to do the constructions and also the scientific need. Therefore a supercollider is a very suitable item to consider.
(C) The third reason given by Dr. Yang is that constructing a supercollider necessarily excludes funding other basic sciences.
China currently spends 5% of all R&D budget on basic research; internationally 15% is more typical for developed countries. As a developing country aiming to joint the ranks of developed country, and as a large country, I believe we should aim to raise the ratio to 10% gradually and eventually to 15%. In terms of numbers, funding for basic science has a large potential for growth (around 100 billion yuan per annum) without taking away from other basic science research.
On the other hand, where should the increased funding be directed? Everyone knows that a large portion of our basic science research budgets are spent on purchasing scientific instruments, especially from international sources. If we evenly distribute the increased funding amount all basic science fields, the end results is raising the GDP of US, Europe, and Japan. If we instead spend 10 years putting 30 billion Yuan into accelerator science, more than 90% of the money will remain in the country, and improve our technical development and market share of domestic companies. This will also allow us to raise many new scientists and engineers, and greatly improve the state of art in domestically produced scientific instruments.
In addition, putting emphasis into high energy physics will only bring us to the normal funding level internationally (it is a fact that particle physics and nuclear physics are severely underfunded in China). For the purposes of developing a world-leading big science project, CEPC is a very good candidate. And it does not contradict a desire to also develop other basic sciences.
(D) Dr. Yang’s fourth objection is that both supersymmetry and quantum gravity have not been verified, and the particles we hope to discover using the new collider will in fact be nonexistent.
That is of course not the goal of collider science. In [ref 1] which I gave to Dr. Yang myself, we clearly discussed the scientific purpose of the instrument. Briefly speaking, the standard model is only an effective theory in the low energy limit, and a new and deeper theory is need. Even though there are some experimental evidence beyond the standard model, more data will be needed to indicate the correct direction to develop the theory. Of the known problems with the standard model, most are related to the Higgs Boson. Thus a deeper physical theory should have hints in a better understanding of the Higgs boson. CEPC can probe to 1% precision [ed. I am not sure what this means] Higgs bosons, 10 times better than LHC. From this we have the hope to correctly identify various properties of the Higgs boson, and test whether it in fact matches the standard model. At the same time, CEPC has the possibility of measuring the self-coupling of the Higgs boson, of understanding the Higgs contribution to vacuum phase transition, which is important for understanding the early universe. [Ed. in this previous sentence, the translations are a bit questionable since some HEP jargon is used with which I am not familiar] Therefore, regardless of whether LHC has discovered new physics, CEPC is necessary.
If there are new coupling mechanisms for Higgs, new associated particles, composite structure for Higgs boson, or other differences from the standard model, we can continue with the second phase of the proton-proton collider, to directly probe the difference. Of course this could be due to supersymmetry, but it could also be due to other particles. For us experimentalists, while we care about theoretical predictions, our experiments are not designed only for them. To predict whether a collider can or cannot discover a hypothetical particle at this moment in time seems premature, and is not the view point of the HEP community in general.
(E) The fifth objection is that in the past 70 years high energy physics have not led to tangible improvements to humanity, and in the future likely will not.
In the past 70 years, there are many results from high energy physics, which led to techniques common to everyday life. [Ed: list of examples include sychrotron radiation, free electron laser, scatter neutron source, MRI, PET, radiation therapy, touch screens, smart phones, the world-wide web. I omit the prose.]
[Ed. Author proceeds to discuss hypothetical economic benefits from
a) superconductor science
b) microwave source
sort of the usual stuff you see in funding proposals.]
(F) The sixth reason was that the institute for High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has not produced much in the past 30 years. The major scientific contributions to the proposed collider will be directed by non-Chinese, and so the nobel will also go to a non-Chinese.
[Ed. I’ll skip this section because it is a self-congratulatory pat on one’s back (we actually did pretty well for the amount of money invested), a promise to promote Chinese participation in the project (in accordance to the economic investment), and the required comment that “we do science for the sake of science, and not for winning the Nobel.”]
(G) The seventh reason is that the future in HEP is in developing a new technique to accelerate particles, and developing a geometric theory, not in building large accelerators.
A new method to accelerate particles is definitely an important aspect to accelerator science. In the next several decades this can prove useful for scattering experiments or for applied fields where beam confinement is not essential. For high energy colliders, in terms of beam emittance and energy efficiency, new acceleration principles have a long way to go. During this period, high energy physics cannot be simply put on hold. In terms of “geometric theory” or “string theory”, these are too far from experimentally approachable, and is not a problem we can consider currently.
People disagree on the future of high energy physics. Currently there are no Chinese winners of the Nobel prize in physics, but there are many internationally. Dr. Yang’s viewpoints are clearly out of mainstream. Not just currently, but also in the past several decades. Dr. Yang has been documented to have held a pessimistic view of higher energy physics and its future since the 60s, and that’s how he missed out on the discovery of the standard model. He is on record as being against Chinese collider science since the 70s. It is fortunate that the government supported the Institute of High Energy Physics and constructed various supporting facilities, leading to our current achievements in synchrotron radiation and neutron scattering. For the future, we should listen to the younger scientists at the forefront of current research, for that’s how we can gain international recognition for our scientific research.
It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.