Many reasons why it's right to keep on building larger, more powerful colliders are often described in rather mainstream articles. But I happen to think that some of them, while fundamentally true, sound like clichés, politically correct astroturf theses. Like the correct statement that the scientific research is a universal value that unites nations – and people from different nations peacefully cooperate on something that boils down to the same humanity inside both. Just to be sure, I totally believe it and it's important, too!
As you know, my emphasis is a bit different... and I want to start with the reasons that are related to the "competition between civilizations". The first assumption of mine that you need to share is that the decisions in the West and the decisions in Asia are done very independently and they may have very different motivations. In particular, the anti-collider activists in the West influence the thinking of the VIPs in China about as much as the P*ssy Riot group does. They're just another strange aspect of the Western mass culture.
China – as the place of the CEPC, a planned future collider – has its own discussions about the colliders but only big shots seem to matter in those. Chen-Ning Yang, a physics titan (Lee-Yang and Yang-Mills), turned out to be the most prominent antagonist. Yang's reasons are really social. He thinks China is too poor and should pay for the people's bread instead. Well, ironically enough, this social thinking won't necessarily be decisive for the leaders in the communist party. Shing-Tung Yau – a top mathematician who comes from a pretty poor family – is among the numerous champions of the Chinese collider.
OK, the pride of the West can't be hurt for too long: astronauts' precedent
Approximately like the space research, high energy physics is one of the major litmus tests that determine which country or continent or civilization is technologically ahead – ahead when it comes to the high-brow newest types of scientific and technological power and/or brute force.
There's one recent precedent that can already teach us something. In the 1960s, America was catching up with the Soviet Union in the outer space. Sputnik, Lajka, and Gagarin have really humiliated America and a response was needed. After a decade of huge investments (around 5% of the GDP was the peak annual fraction), America arguably became #1 in most "disciplines" and the 12 men on the Moon were among the most visible cherries on the pie that supports my assertion. But just to be sure, the manned spaceflights are the "mass culture-oriented" part of the space program.
Numerous scientific experiments deployed by NASA are probably more important, at least from scientists' viewpoint, and the U.S. is well ahead of Russia there, I think.
However, a decade ago or so, already during the reign of George Bush Jr, the U.S. was drifting towards a new long-term strategy that ultimately resulted in America's inability to send people into space. Lots of science experiments were still administered by NASA but America had to beg its friend, Russia, to send the people into outer space.
This situation continued for a couple of years – I am sure that many of you know the dates in detail, I would have to search and remind myself – but it was a very humiliating situation, indeed, especially with the growing American-Russian political tensions in the background. So the situation – which was nothing else than the "1960s V2.0 Lite" just wasn't sustainable.
SpaceX, Elon Musk's cosmic company, became famous – and the only "miracle" that the company did was to partially revive some activity that the U.S. government previously deliberately shut down. SpaceX basically argued "but we still want to send the people in space, don't we?" and did it privately, while recycling some 20-year-old tricks with recycled rockets. And regardless of the government decision to shut down the U.S. manned spaceflights, there was still a clear demand and SpaceX earned lots of money from the government contracts, mainly because of its being politically close to the source of money. Once other companies were allowed to compete with SpaceX, the importance of that company began to drop.
Trump is already talking about the returning of the people to the Moon before 2025 and other things. It makes sense: If you want to make America great again, you should better make sure that it's capable of sending people to the Moon again, too. The message of this story is that even if a fad may lead to the abolition of such a high-tech activity in a country like America, it can't last in the long term. And the main reason for the ongoing or looming revival of U.S. manned spaceflights may be called pride.
Now, no one cares much about the small "competition" between America and Europe because these two worlds are almost "united", they are living together – especially their physicists do. So the Tevatron was shut down and the LHC took over. There are American physicists working there and even those who aren't there now that it is "our" experiment. But the competition between the West and Asia or the East is a different level.
Brain drift: from the West to Asia
The reasons for the U.S. or Europe not to remain inferior for a long time are not only about pride. There are more practical considerations involved. One of the most important ones is the brain drift. Just a century ago, the U.S. was just a "potential" superpower. The British Empire and Germany were "stronger" in most respects.
As you know, that dramatically changed from 1945. America became the world's main – or only – superpower. It wasn't damaged by the Second World War. In many respects, the U.S. has benefited from the war. And the brains were among the important things that the U.S. could acquire at that time. Ironically enough, America's science and technology was strengthened both by the Jews and by the ex-Nazi scientists and engineers. Wernher von Braun is an example of the second group.
You might dispute the importance of the transferred scientific and technological elite for the American leadership. I think it's important. The post-war brain drift was important – and the brains drifting to the American universities, research centers, and corporations are important for the current American technological edge, too. America has a healthier "job market" in these high-tech matters than any other country. It can pay the promising people well – so they often go to America.
According to some, China may become the leader in an analogous way in the future. I think that these rosy predictions for China are a bit exaggerated but it's possible. That country's ability to take over the scientific and technological talent is a likely part of the potentially successful Chinese efforts to become a real superpower.
Now, particle and fundamental physicists represent a certain fraction, perhaps 5% or 10%, of the world's 1 million smartest folks. The reason is understandable: a significant percentage of the smart folks simply are curious about important enough questions – and particle and fundamental physics are top examples.
From some broader perspective, these people are analogous to other smart folks who do other things than particle and fundamental physics. But my explanation assumes that we define particle and fundamental physicists as those smart enough folks (here I am assuming that a meritocratic process actually chooses them as smart, not that they and their allies just describe themselves as smart!) who can be lured to physics research because they naturally consider it important.
At any rate, by becoming the new headquarters of particle physics, China (or even someone else?) can attract a very large portion of the particle physicists – i.e. not really a negligible percentage of the world's top talent. This could have implications for China because, as Eric Weinstein noted, these people may also invent things such as the World Wide Web, molecular biology, and transistors in their leisure time.
America has usually respected the researchers' freedom, it was very professional. In late 2017, I discussed the likely hypothesis that China would try to shape these people's behavior a little bit more assertively, for them to serve China's interests. I don't want to be very specific about the possible exploitation of these people – but I am sure most of you will agree and have good enough fantasy to find examples.
Some apparent fads in the mass culture – e.g. the ordinary people's hobby to say "we hate fundamental physics now" – aren't just inconsequential fads. They may have far-reaching consequences for the global balance of power. Some people have had jobs in science they didn't deserve which is why they consider scientists' jobs to be on par with welfare – it is a correct description in their own case. But if some people got a job easily and without meritocratic reasons, it doesn't mean that all scientists did. Real scientists who deserve the job aren't on welfare (they are often picked from 50+ candidates) and they're likely enough to influence the world in tangible ways, whether people on welfare want to deny this fact or not.
Most people in the West actually understand the debt to the physicists
The U.S. physicists have built the first nuclear weapons which helped to persuade an extremely stubborn enemy, Japan, to surrender. The bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was tragic and scary and some physicists didn't feel well about it. On the other hand, it's very likely that it shortened the war by a year or years – and therefore saved millions of lives. Equally importantly, the bombs made sure that America wouldn't be a loser in that war.
"The shorter war" and "the victorious war" were gifts worth at least a trillion dollars if not ten trillion. The success of this nuclear research ignited the massive funding of high energy physics in the U.S. Many young researchers were surely surprised why they are paid from grants of the "Department of Energy". Why is that? Yes, "energy" sounds a bit physical but the details don't add up, do they? Well, they do if you think about the whole nuclear prehistory of that research.
There are several ways to look at the funding for the fundamental, pure physics research from the financial sources that care about very practical matters. One of them is that e.g. the theoretical physicists and purely curiosity-driven experimental particle physicists are helping to establish fields that are adjacent to the practical nuclear research – and even for practical reasons, it's good for the foundations to be firm.
The previous paragraph elaborates on the perspective that the government represents the people's interests, it is in charge of things, it knows what it's doing, and it is rationally funding similar things that were helpful in the past. The previous paragraph pretends that the government "creates" the physicists by hiring them.
Well, it's not really the most civilized or most ethical perspective because the scientists' passions aren't – or at least shouldn't be – dictated by the government. These passions exist independently of the government. A different perspective is that the results of the Manhattan Project (aside from other practical things) were "gifts" that a subset of the population defined by some traits has given to the overall U.S. population. The traits that define this subset of the people are their 1) intelligence and 2) curiosity to do the fundamental research of the Universe.
None of the people from the Manhattan Project are very active in the physics research today. So if you formulated that "debt" too personally, you would end up with nothing. But you know, even nations and companies sometimes owe money and things to each other for a very long time – even when the original borrowers are already dead. There may be a "debt" in between nations or their parts as "abstract sets of people" whose identity lasts longer than the human lifetimes.
I think that most of the civilized people actually understand this kind of a "debt" – which is enough to build dozens or hundreds of LHC-like colliders. Japan wasn't defeated by "all people in the U.S. equally". The kind of people who have contributed more deserve some lasting compensation. At some level, this compensation isn't too different from the lasting salaries for the U.S. troops – and especially the compensation for the veterans (and sometimes their widows). I focused on the nuclear bombs but similar comments apply to transistors, molecular biology, the World Wide Web, and more.
Reasonable people know that concentrated, ambitious projects are needed to avoid the universal waste of money
The world's annual GDP approaches $100 trillion – which is equal to the price of 5,000 FCC colliders. The people earn an amount comparable to $100 trillion a year – and they spend it. For a very long time, people were able to produce more than they needed to survive. They did various things with the surplus. They invested it. They built cathedrals. Or colliders. But they could also buy a greater amount of more expensive cigarettes.
Again, I am not saying that "cathedrals" are really the same king of expenses as "colliders". The differences between science and religion are profound – but so are some basic similarities. Instead, my main point is that there exists a basic difference between "diluted spending" and "concentrated spending". And it's generally true that whenever the "diluted spending" completely dominates, the society stagnates because the money is being spent for consumption, not investment – e.g. for cigarettes.
Unlike cigarettes, the construction of a new collider requires some real work that won't be done automatically, overcoming of some hurdles that can't be overcome without some focused work. Even the very fact that the constructors of the collider – and those who maintain it and use it to do experiments – need to do some mental exercise is nontrivial. Without concentrated, ambitious projects, the skills of these groups of people may fade away.
If things get really bad, the society should at least preserve the patent offices that could be stimulating for a new Einstein. If you only allow truly low-brow occupations, you may really lose the potential for discoveries. People can invent or discover amazing things – but these discoveries and inventions become very unlikely if the people spend all their time with much dumber activities.
Higgs and top can't become abstract myths from old, dusty books
Let's optimistically assume that in 2050, the texts (from 2023 or older) revealing the existence of the Higgs boson or the top quark won't be burned and banned yet. And imagine that between 2023 and 2050, there won't be any high-energy collision that would produce these particles with masses above \(100\GeV\). What will the scientifically literate people think about these texts?
They will be surrounded by some nice technology that mostly depends on Quantum Electrodynamics only – and many condensed-matter-physics applications of it. Will the smart young physicists actually believe that the Higgs boson and the top quark exist? Will they trust the texts – that will look historical because they will be over 25 years old?
Some people will surely believe it. Even though the LHC tunnel will be used to grow mushrooms, they will rightfully think it's a conspiracy theory to suggest that all the texts up to 2023 talking about the production of the top quark and the Higgs boson at some colliders were just "old myths". On the other hand, there will also be a real widespread doubt about the very existence of the particles they will haven't produced for more than 25 years.
Unless all the people in 2050 lose their interest in the laws of the Universe altogether, there will be a big enough reason to build some new collider, anyway. At least another repetition of the LHC – which will be much better than nothing.
High-energy physics wasn't meant to be a temporary stunt. It's a long-term discipline of physics in which the people's understanding of the basic laws of the Universe is known to get deeper as the center-of-mass collision energy gets higher – and this basic relationship works all the way to the Planck energy (where the growing black holes change the rules of the game). Our colliders are nowhere close to the Planck energy (and they arguably never will be) which is the simplest reason why there's no reason to stop pushing the energy frontier.
Intimidation always ends at some point and people realize that new physics may be found
It's conceivable that new colliders may only produce the particles we already know – and study their interactions at higher energies, perhaps with a better precision. Well, it may happen. It wouldn't be the first time. One could argue that even the tallest cathedrals have failed to persuade God to climb down from Heaven to Earth and personally visit the believers.
But new physics – beyond the latest, 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson – may also materialize at higher energies. It's possible that a discovery is waiting in the LHC data that have already been collected (in the run that ended in late 2018) but haven't been analyzed yet. If there's no discovery in that dataset, a new possibility exists when the LHC probes a higher amount of data (integrated luminosity). Or – especially – when new colliders with a higher collision energy are launched.
These days, it's fashionable to say that there won't be a new discovery. And even scream at the people who would dare to suggest that a \(2\TeV\) gluino is totally possible within the LHC 2018 data, among other things. Some people allow to be intimidated in this way. But you know, this intimidation cannot last indefinitely because it fundamentally makes no sense.
If and when colliders and detectors perform and analyze collisions at energies that are higher than ever before, it's always possible for them to discover a new particle or effect that was previously unknown to the experimenters. Science clearly doesn't know any valid argument that would exclude such new discoveries – or even arguments that would make this scenario very unlikely. The bullies may scare the physicists for a while but they ultimately run out of energy because what they say isn't backed by anything that makes any sense.
The discovery of new physics at higher, previously untested energies is always possible and it is always an important natural reason for people to want the new gadget. We don't know of really solid derivations that would tell us what these discoveries are going to be but that's just another reason why the experiments are desirable.
High energy collisions are the most agnostic way to look for new phenomena
One may think about many smaller experiments and phrase them as "competitors" of the next colliders. Well, first, this suggestion that "you may only have this or that" is just wrong. People have built Superkamiokande and the LHC in a similar epoch. They have done various types of research simultaneously and the overall cost was still small relatively to the countries' GDP – one or two percent of the GDP goes to research.
Second, even if there were some "real competition", it's very likely that the colliders would win the meritocratic contest because the energy is the most useful variable to parameterize physical effects. People have known the concept of energy for centuries and since the early 20th century, it's been really helpful in particle physics.
But the importance of energy for the classification of knowledge has increased further, in the 1970s, with the birth of the renormalization group thinking – by Ken Wilson and others. Since that time, physicists are well aware that much of their knowledge about the world around us is phrased in terms of "effective theories" that are optimized for phenomena with a particular value of energy – an order-of-magnitude estimate of the energies in the process.
You may attach various particles and phenomena to the energy axis. In this sense, walking along the energy axis produces qualitatively new particles and physical phenomena. So this looking at "many energy scales" gives you a bigger picture than just trying to measure one particular parameter of Nature, like the proton lifetime, more accurately than before. If you walk from one energy scale to another, all the possible phenomena and their parameters emerge and disappear. So the increase of the energies – which allows you to study matter at a more fundamental level – is a "more general way of looking" for new possibilities.
On the other hand, the somewhat cheaper experiments are more specialized. They will only discover something new if they're really lucky – if the only new hypothesized physical phenomenon that they are testing happens to be realized in Nature, with the values of parameters that are accessible by the experiment. That chance should be expected to be smaller than the change to find any new physics in some new range of energies.
Most people will realize that the anti-collider folks are Luddites dragging us back to the Middle Ages real fast
Professional physicists solve lots of technical questions. For example, they decide whether one version of a cutting-edge theory – that has only been partially proven, like inflationary cosmology – is more viable than another. The physicists and sponsors who plan the new experiments are deciding which of the two experiments – or two possible designs of the same kind of an experiment – is more economically feasible or scientifically useful.
Such research – and disagreements – are subtle and only experts really understand most of them.
However, it seems very clear to me that the contemporary anti-collider and anti-theoretical-physics fad has almost nothing to do with the nuances and careful research. It is a movement represented by the people who have no respect towards science and research in general. They have no respect towards science that has already been found, science that is being found or proposed, no respect towards the proposed theories, no respect towards the experiments that play the role of the judges that help one theory over another, no respect for the curiosity, patience, intelligence, and other character traits that describe great scientists.
Up to some moment, a similar populist movement may grow. But later, it reaches a point where the growth stops. New people will stop joining the anti-scientific movement simply because they will realize that they're better. At some moment, the qualitative difference between the "two camps" will become obvious. They will ask: Do I really want to be similar to these Luddites? To the people who just sling mud on everything that is fancier than some superficial laymen's sentiments? Am I not closer to this fancier pro-physics camp instead? And most of these people will just respond to themselves: I am way better than these folks (even if it won't be true in some cases – but it will be a better choice for their image). The people will suddenly say: I actually do have some respect for knowledge accumulated by the mankind, science, the process of accumulating new knowledge, impartiality, integrity (similar to the scientific one), and plans, dreams, and expenses that transcend the everyday life.
Once this "peak of the anti-science movement" is reached, and it may be very soon, the trend will reverse and people will start to enjoy talking openly about the sexiness of science as well as the vices of the anti-science activists who prefer the dark ages.