I’ve recently finished reading two new books on huge collider projects, which make an interesting contrast.
The first is From the Great Wall to the Great Collider, by Steve Nadis and Shing-Tung Yau. It’s a very well-informed and topical book, a bit of a political document, designed to make the case for a Chinese “Great Collider”. This is a proposed machine of up to 100km in circumference, that would operate first as an electron-positron collider, designed to be a “Higgs factory”, allowing precision study of the Higgs. In a second stage the same tunnel would be used for a proton-proton machine with collision energies up to 100 TeV. This would be designed to explore the energy range above a TeV, in much the same way as the LHC, but with seven times the energy, thus a much higher energy reach. This energy would also allow study of Higgs self-interactions.
The Nadis-Yau book is an unusual document in many ways. Yau is a great geometer, but a main concern of the book is something completely different, the question of how one might construct such a huge physics and engineering project. There is a great deal of information in the book about the history and current state of experimental HEP, but from an unusual angle, that of the many Chinese contributions to the subject. I’ve read many histories of HEP, but learned a lot of new things from this one, with its very different emphasis.
This is a short, rather than encyclopedic, book, with about 130 pages of text. It functions well in explaining the case for a large new collider to anyone interested, but has a distinct focus on arguments for the proposal to do this in China. The Chinese government and people in coming years will be deciding whether to go ahead with this, and this book is the perfect place for them to read a serious account of what this proposal is and why it deserves to be taken seriously.
The current state of affairs is that an initial conceptual design has been completed recently, which was reported here. This gave rise to some mistaken reports like this one that the Chinese government had given its approval to the project. There’s still quite a ways to go before that happens, with a final conceptual design not due until next year, and even if there is a go-ahead, construction only starting in 2020-25.
For a detailed look at the physics to be done by such a collider, see this new review article. I was interested to see (page 32) that the previous description by one of the authors of the current situation as leading to only two possibilities (“natural” SUSY or some such, or the multiverse and the end of hope for explaining things) has been expanded to now include a more interesting third possibility: “correlation between the physics of the deep UV and IR”.
Just after finishing the Nadis-Yau book, I got a copy of a new history of the SSC project, Tunnel Visions, by Riordan, Hoddeson and Kolb. This book has been in the works for a long time, with the authors starting to gather material back in the 80s, before the project was cancelled in 1993. I’ve been hearing about the book for quite a while, glad to see that it has finally appeared.
The cancellation of the SSC had a disastrous effect on the US experimental HEP program, moving the center of research conclusively to CERN and its LHC project. A central concern of any book of this kind has to be the “what went wrong?” question. The conclusions drawn are similar to ones I remember often hearing back then in the wake of the disaster: the SSC was a juicy target for a Congress intent on budget-cutting, easily portrayed as out of control (its budget kept increasing from $3 billion early on, to maybe $12 billion at the end), with little support from non-Texas representatives. In some sense the surprising part of the story is that the project got as far as it did before being terminated by an overwhelming Congressional vote.
One part of the story I had never understood was that as the SSC budget expanded it was coming into direct conflict with the plan to keep funding the other HEP labs (Fermilab, SLAC, Cornell, Brookhaven), and that was part of the story of the politics of this within the scientific community. I also hadn’t appreciated the way the challenges of a project of this scale required bringing in companies and other parts of the US military-industrial complex, making it take on some of the aspects of a large defense spending project. A major topic of the book is that of the problematic interaction between this and the standard ways that physicists were used to doing business.
Unlike Nadis-Yau, Tunnel Visions is more of an academic book, with notes and references to a huge number of extensive interviews making up a large part of the text. It’s not at all an inspirational story, nor is there all that much physics discussed. At the same time, it’s the definitive work on a crucial part of the history of high energy physics in the US. One group of people who should definitely be reading it are those planning the Chinese project. Some of the difficulties they will face if they go ahead will be similar: the SSC was an 87km ring, of similar scale to the new proposal. That this almost got off the ground 20 years ago here in the US is a good argument that it is something that could be pulled off in China over the next 20 years if they want to do it.
Based on the fact that the SSC might have worked with more international support, the authors end with the conclusion
Despite the added difficulty of organizing and managing them, pure-science projects at the multibillion-dollar scale should henceforth be attempted only as international enterprises involving interested nations from the outset as essentially equal partners. Nations that attempt to go it alone on such immense projects are probably doomed to failure like the Superconducting Super Collider.
The Chinese proposal is still in its infancy, but there’s reason to expect it might be a “go it alone” project. Given the way the US budget operates, at this point no country is likely to look to the US as a reliable source of sizable funding. CERN has its own proposal for a 100 TeV collider, but it seems hard to believe that both projects will go ahead, although also hard to see the Europeans agree to give up energy frontier physics to China. Many of the lessons of the SSC funding debacle are rather specific to the US and the way budgets are done here. I have no idea what the considerations in China are for projects like this, I guess we’ll start to find out in coming years.