“China” plans super collider

When I saw the headline, I was excited.

“China plans super collider” says Nature News.

There’s been a lot of worry about what may happen if the Large Hadron Collider finishes its run without discovering anything truly new. If that happens, finding new particles might require a much bigger machine…and since even that machine has no guarantee of finding anything at all, world governments may be understandably reluctant to fund it.

As such, several prominent people in the physics community have put their hopes on China. The country’s somewhat autocratic nature means that getting funding for a collider is a matter of convincing a few powerful people, not a whole fractious gaggle of legislators. It’s a cynical choice, but if it keeps the field alive so be it.

If China was planning a super collider, then, that would be great news!

Too bad it’s not.

Buried eight paragraphs in to Nature’s article we find the following:

The Chinese government is yet to agree on any funding, but growing economic confidence in the country has led its scientists to believe that the political climate is ripe, says Nick Walker, an accelerator physicist at DESY, Germany’s high-energy physics laboratory in Hamburg. Although some technical issues remain, such as keeping down the power demands of an energy-hungry ring, none are major, he adds.

The Chinese government is yet to agree on any funding. China, if by China you mean the Chinese government, is not planning a super collider.

So who is?

Someone must have drawn these diagrams, after all.

Reading the article, the most obvious answer is Beijing’s Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP). While this is true, the article leaves out any mention of a more recently founded site, the Center for Future High Energy Physics (CFHEP).

This is a bit odd, given that CFHEP’s whole purpose is to compose a plan for the next generation of colliders, and persuade China’s government to implement it. They were founded, with heavy involvement from non-Chinese physicists including their director Nima Arkani-Hamed, with that express purpose in mind. And since several of the quotes in the article come from Yifang Wang, director of IHEP and member of the advisory board of CFHEP, it’s highly unlikely that this isn’t CFHEP’s plan.

So what’s going on here? On one level, it could be a problem on the journalists’ side. News editors love to rewrite headlines to be more misleading and click-bait-y, and claiming that China is definitely going to build a collider draws much more attention than pointing out the plans of a specialized think tank. I hope that it’s just something like that, and not the sort of casual racism that likes to think of China as a single united will. Similarly, I hope that the journalists involved just didn’t dig deep enough to hear about CFHEP, or left it out to simplify things, because there is a somewhat darker alternative.

CFHEP’s goal is to convince the Chinese government to build a collider, and what better way to do that than to present them with a fait accompli? If the public thinks that this is “China’s” plan, that wheels are already in motion, wouldn’t it benefit the Chinese government to play along? Throw in a few sweet words about the merits of international collaboration (a big part of the strategy of CFHEP is to bring international scientists to China to show the sort of community a collider could attract) and you’ve got a winning argument, or at least enough plausibility to get US and European funding agencies in a competitive mood.

This…is probably more cynical than what’s actually going on. For one, I don’t even know whether this sort of tactic would work.

Do these guys look like devious manipulators?

Indeed, it might just be a journalistic omission, part of a wider tendency of science journalists to focus on big projects and ignore the interesting part, the nitty-gritty things that people do to push them forward. It’s a shame, because people are what drive the news forward, and as long as science is viewed as something apart from real human beings people are going to continue to mistrust and misunderstand it.

Either way, one thing is clear. The public deserves to hear a lot more about CFHEP.

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