Business Day

Dis­cuss par­ti­cle physics plan

- Space · Science · Physics · Beijing · European Organization for Nuclear Research · Alfred Nobel · Hong Kong · Large Hadron Collider · Particle Physics · Chen Ning Yang · Institute of High Energy Physics

HOLD­ING Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties to ac­count for pub­lic spend­ing is dif­fi­cult when there is so lit­tle trans­parency. The first cit­i­zens learn of a pro­ject is of­ten only when it is an­nounced, plan­ning hav­ing been done be­hind closed doors. De­bate on so­cial me­dia about whether China should be­come a leader in par­ti­cle physics, there­fore, breaks im­por­tant ground. Sci­en­tists have spo­ken of the pro­posal to build a su­per­col­lider, but the govern­ment has yet to grant ap­proval, giv­ing tax­pay­ers a rare op­por­tu­nity to make their views known.

Par­ti­cle physics, like space ex­plo­ration, is ex­pen­sive. A blue­print un­veiled in 2014 by the In­sti­tute of High En­ergy Physics en­vis­ages a su­per­col­lider com­pris­ing 52km of tun­nels so that sub­atomic par­ti­cles can be smashed at enor­mous speeds to gen­er­ate mil­lions of Higgs Bo­son par­ti­cles, be­lieved to be the build­ing blocks of mat­ter. If con­structed, it would be twice the size and have about seven times the en­ergy level of the Large Hadron Col­lider op­er­ated by the Eu­ro­pean Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Nu­clear Re­search, bet­ter known as Cern, which sci­en­tists used to dis­cover the Higgs Bo­son in 2012.

In­sti­tute di­rec­tor Wang Yi­fang be­lieves the scheme could un­lock the ori­gins of the uni­verse.

If con­struc­tion be­gins as planned in 2020, the first stage would be com­pleted in 2030 at an es­ti­mated cost of $6.3bn. When fin­ished in 2050, the bill may top $21bn. The an­nounce­ment has gen­er­ated heated de­bate in so­cial me­dia, with tens of thou­sands of post­ings sup­port­ing the ob­jec­tions of No­bel Physics Prize co-win­ner Yang Chen-ning. He con­tended that the pro­ject would be an in­vest­ment “black hole”, with lit­tle sci­en­tific ben­e­fit that would pull re­sources from more mean­ing­ful en­deav­ours such as quan­tum physics and life sci­ences.

The US ap­proved such a pro­ject and spent $2bn on it be­fore scrap­ping it for cost and po­lit­i­cal rea­sons in 1993. Wang has coun­tered with post­ings ar­gu­ing that with­out re­search in high­en­ergy physics, there would be no World Wide Web, mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing and mo­bile phone touch screens. Just as there had been ma­jor tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances as a re­sult of space re­search, work­ing with sub­atomic par­ti­cles was bound to lead to un­fore­seen break­throughs.

In a sys­tem that lacks open elec­tions, there is every need to in­form tax­pay­ers and al­low opin­ions to be heard. That is es­pe­cially nec­es­sary with a scheme as ex­pen­sive as a su­per­col­lider. Hong Kong, Septem­ber 13.

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