China Wants to Become Particle Collider Capital of the World

Wednesday, 23 July 2014 - 11:47AM
Wednesday, 23 July 2014 - 11:47AM

Two proposals to build "super colliders" may bring China to the forefront of particle physics. While Europe and the United States have historically had a commanding lead in the field, China's plans to build a 52-kilometer "Higgs factory" may be a game changer.


This enormous underground ring would serve as a haven for electron and positron collisions, which would allow for more precise observation of the Higgs boson, more commonly known as the "God particle." Researchers at the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing plan to build this monster collider by 2028. Physicists claim that this project is both technologically and fiscally feasible in the allotted time, while plans from the U.S. and Europe to build super colliders are projected to be completed by 2035 at the earliest. 


[Credit: Nature]


IHEP director Yifang Wang said at the International Conference on High Energy Physics that, in order to receive government support, it was practical to propose a more immediate goal than a project that could only be completed by 2035. "You can't just talk about a project which is 20 years from now," he said.


The proposed collider would be significantly larger than Europe's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland (as well as a huge jump from the largest collider in China, which is only 240 meters), but the new collider would not necessarily serve as a replacement. On the contrary, the two machines are complementary in the sense that they serve slightly different purposes; the LHC smashes protons together at high energies in order to observe the yields, while the positron-electron collider would involve lower-energy collisions, which will allow for more precise analysis of those collisions. Theoretically, the Chinese collider should be able to yield observations regarding whether the Higgs boson conforms to the standard model of physics or whether it is erroneous to refer to the Higgs boson as one type of entity, and actually multiple types of these particles exist.


There is still a long and winding road towards China becoming a particle physics superpower; the Chinese government has thus far not approved the project's funding, and there are minor technical issues to be resolved, such as maintaining the energy requirements. Some predict that the project will need to be an international effort in order to come to fruition; since only one super collider is likely to be built, Ian Shipsey, an experimental physicist at the University of Oxford, asserted that "the world will have to work together to locate it in the best place."


If this collider is eventually built, it is unclear whether it would spark the same kind of "end of days" hysteria that was inspired by the LHC. Many panicked that the collider, which technically creates many mini-black holes, would accidentally create an enormous black hole that was capable of swallowing the Earth whole. The fact that this proposed machine is lower energy (not to mention the fact that the world did not actually end when the LHC was activated) may quell potential fears of an apocalypse. 


In addition to the world's end fears, some actually viewed the LHC as a means of salvation. Robin Williams, director of the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh, commented on the equally baseless claims that the LHC could open up wormholes that could take us to inhabitable planets in far corners of the galaxy: "I have come to see that in their early days, new technology and scientific breakthroughs often serve as Rorschach tests - a phenomenon about which we have little concrete understanding, onto which contemporary social anxieties (and dreams) can readily be projected. As a result we find (often polarized) utopian and dystopian visions being articulated."

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