Comments on the Construction of a High-Energy Collider in China and Reply to Media’s Questions

-- Shing-Tung Yau

[This article will be published in ICCM Notices, and the Chinese translation had been published in Math. Sci. History & Culture (数理人文) magazine (Wechat version)].

Recently many news media outlets are paying close attention to the possibility of building a high-energy collider in China. This is a good thing since many scientists from all over the world are excited about this project. Unfortunately, some in the news media are so eager to get attention that they have presented a distorted version of the facts and, in some cases, published fictional accounts.

I have recently come across several such cases. For example, after I refused an interview request by Caixin Weekly, they made up a report that implied they had actually interviewed me. But in fact, the report is the result of their own imagination, mixed in with some rumors found on the Internet, out of which they fashioned a personal attack on me.

Furthermore, many journalists of late keep asking me some naïve questions, encouraging me to speak to Mr. Mengyuan Wang, whom I have never heard of, while also asking me to comment on Wang’s article about colliders. These journalists insisted that Mr. Wang is an expert in high-energy physics because he received a PhD from the Physics Department at Harvard University. That statement really surprised me. I am a professor in both the Physics and Mathematics Departments at Harvard University, but I have never heard of Mr. Wang. (I am, in fact, the only professor appointed by the president of Harvard that can vote in both departments.) After hearing this from journalists, I asked my high-energy-physics colleagues in Harvard’s Physics Department to see if there was anyone who knew Mr. Wang. The result was that nobody had heard of Mr. Wang. After further inquiries, I finally figured out that his advisor was an assistant professor who didn’t get a promotion in the department. This explains why senior professors in the department didn’t know Mr. Wang. It is said that Mr. Wang no longer wrote interesting scientific papers after his PhD thesis and has been a businessman for the past 20 years. After hearing this, I was surprised by the inability of the Chinese media to find a qualified expert for the interview.

I don’t care about Mr. Wang’s criticism of me whatsoever. After all, I receive letters from nonacademic individuals every week, each claiming to have solved important problems in math or physics, and I am no longer surprised by such outlandish claims. However, those journalists insisted on pursuing this matter and even dragged Prof. Chen-Ning Yang into the debate, which brought the issue to a much higher level—and one that I feel obliged to say something about.

I have personally known Mr. Yang for more than 40 years. He has always been the scientist I respect most besides my mentor, Shiing-Shen Chern. Yang’s work in the 1950s and 1960s on statistical mechanics and high-energy physics are all admirable—none more influential than his generalization of Weyl’s gauge theory to the non-Abelian case. The Standard Model of high-energy physics was constructed by many Western physicists in the 1970s, which may well be the most successful physics theory ever devised in human history, and its construction makes use of the non-Abelian theory.

Over the past 50 years, many important experimental results have come from the world’s top high-energy colliders, each of them revealing a fundamental aspect of nature. The ultimate question that humans can ask concerns how the Universe was born. The experimental breakthroughs realized at these incredible machines represent important steps toward answering this question.

The theories underlying these experiments all involve Mr. Yang’s theory, and each breakthrough achieved makes his theory more impressive. So it is puzzling that Mr. Yang would be against the collider proposed for China, which would open new frontiers in high-energy physics, creating possibilities that extend far beyond the grasp of a run-of-the-mill businessman like Mengyuan Wang.

I have to doubt whether it is true that C. N. Yang is really against further development of this most important field of research, as journalists have maintained. After all, I have had a long association with Mr. Yang during which time I have never heard that he was against building a new, state-of-the-art collider. So I am skeptical of the journalists’ message.

Advancement in science rests on the contributions of many scientists and does not depend on any one individual. Fundamental truths about nature are only accepted after close scrutiny. As Aristotle once said of his teacher: “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth.” Such a wise and courageous attitude is needed to press forward in our quest to uncover the deepest truths about the universe. In Western countries, scientists and governments have been making great efforts, willingly and unconditionally, to explore the most profound mysteries of nature. To this end, large sums of money have been invested in basic research that appears to have no obvious practical applications. These investments have paid off over the long run, however, helping to establish the basis of today’s Western civilization.

China today is no longer the China of the past. Shouldn’t China make a contribution toward answering the ultimate question about the Universe? Should we be satisfied with the minor benefits that may come from further developments in computer games, real estate, and the internet, while steering clear of bigger, more far-reaching issues? So far as I can tell, no great country in the history of humanity ever operated in such a shortsighted and unambitious fashion.

Let us ask ourselves: Cannot China manage to build a collider, given all of its national wealth and power? Can the peaceful “Rise of China,” as advocated by Chinese leaders, not have the broad scope and vision necessary to enhance our understanding of the Universe? Among the scientists who oppose the collider project in China, who among them are real experts in experimental high-energy physics? And does it make sense to ignore the opinions of the most experienced scientific experts in the world?

The importance of the collider project to both the international science community and to China itself was spelled out in the book, From the Great Wall to the Great Collider, written by Steve Nadis and myself. I hope that people can evaluate this endeavor with objectivity and rationality, and not be swayed by the spurious views being promulgated by irresponsible members of the press.