Hawking – Still Talking!

In an earlier blog I spoke on some reflections on Stephen Hawking on the occasion of his death.

Imagine my surprise on reading the arXiv. org several days later to find an article with Hawking’s name on it: Should China built the Great Collider, Hawking, Kane; arXiv.org: 1804.00682v1.

I was taken aback at first, but then read a subscript that stated that “this memo was completed and distributed in China in early 2018, while Hawking was still active prior to his recent death.”

In this article, Hawking and Kane are advocating for a tool to advance Physics frontiers generally – an expensive collider that would allow physicists to smash particles together at energies not presently accessible to  them using current machinery such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN , on the border between Switzerland and France. They are supporting the case for a new super collider – to quote from their paper:

“The proposed Chinese collider would have two phases. The first would be a Circular Electron Positron Collider (CEPC), and the second a Super Proton-Proton Collider (SPPC).”

H and K provide a general overview of past collider developments and correlations with advances in Physics. Their focus of course is on the growth of knowledge about fundamental  physics and the answers to underlying questions about the nature of our universe.

They also provide examples of off-shoot benefits from the technology needed to develop and build these super colliders. In the case of the Large Hadron Collider they point to the development of the World Wide Web which was (apparently) invented for particle physics research but has gone on to become a dominant force in the whole economic and social development of the world.

H and K appear to be providing support for an earlier proposal by Steve Nadis and Shig-Tung Yau, From the Great Wall to the Great Collider: China and the Quest to Uncover the Inner Workings of the Universe, International Press of Boston, 2015.

Apart from my initial surprise to find papers still being published with Hawking’s name on them, their paper raised a number of issues and questions in my mind.

Is a country that does not support such fundamental principles as freedom of speech, democracy and basic human rights a good place to locate a unique scientific endeavor, supposedly to be supported financially and intellectually by people from all over the world?

To get an idea of what I am talking about here refer to Human Rights Watch: China, on Safari or Google.

The location of an enterprise of the nature of a Great Collider requires unequivocal acceptance and adherence to principles of free thinking, free speech, open access to all data, and many other principles that – while some times taken for granted in our own society and certainly insisted upon in the scientific community – are not all to be taken for granted in many parts of the world – including and especially in China.

There are a host of related issues not touched on by H and K – and it is too bad that Steven Hawking is not available to respond – but these include issues such as respect for intellectual property (patents) , freedom of all persons ( including Chinese physicists) to travel and communicate with others, and so on – basically all the issues that could be raised by locating a major world resource in a territory controlled by a dictatorship.

H and K also refer to, but gloss over, the fact that the US many years ago turned down the opportunity to build a super collider in the US because of a variety of factors including cost, “demanding international participation” (no clear explanation of what this means – but it is hard to imagine that China would be more open to international demands), political reasons …etc.

The fact that an open democratic society like the US turned away from the development underscores the anomaly of an obviously undemocratic, less economically capable country adopting such a project.

H and K state, without support or reference, that “…cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider… led to the US no longer being the world leader in basic particle physics, and created an opening for China to move toward that position.”

In fact, the development of theoretical physics, while a truly world wide enterprise, has also continued to flourish in the US – and many other countries without colliders – precisely because of open international participation in research at any of the particle facilities – regardless of where they are located. The key here, as far as I am concerned, is that regardless of where a large physics facility is located (consider Ice Cube in Antarctica!) it is the open collaboration of a world wide community of scientists that leads to progress in human understanding. The precise physical location of the facility is practically irrelevant; unless of course the location is in a territory where respect for freedom of thought, speech, travel and communication is non-existent.

Equally interesting and equally subject to debate are H and K’s discussion of the spin-off benefits of having such a huge research facility located in a particular region. They state, “Arguably the third industrial revolution was triggered by the invention of the World Wide Web at CERN. The requirements for data acquisition and storage and access, and the materials and technologies needed [for the Chinese colliders] could help lead to the fourth industrial revolution.”

H and K do not elaborate what they envision such a “fourth” revolution to look like but instead go on to describe the benefits to the Chinese economy.

I would tend to agree with H and K that the next frontier in Physics research could very well lead to another level of social development – call it a fourth industrial revolution if you wish – although I  find such terminology a bit mundane and historically moribund. To see where the next phase of science research may lead us, one has only to look at one of the main foci of present day Physics research – namely in the whole area of self learning computing – that is towards developing software and hardware that is capable of self learning – ultimately perhaps to a level of consciousness.

If the next stage in the development of human society may well involve such a step it underscores even more the need to keep the information, the research and the ultimate direction of uses in the firm control of a society that recognizes human rights, and all the associated features I mentioned earlier. It surprising to me that H and K should appear to be glibly unconcerned about this aspect of scientific and technological development in a context of a totalitarian society.

This lack of concern reminds me of the role played by science and technology in past totalitarian societies. In particular, I am reminded of the song I heard years ago by Tom Lehrer (I think it was on the Ed Sullivan Show – so that was a while ago!). The song is about Wernher von Braun and the line I think of is,

“ …once the rockets are up who cares where they come down”.

“That’s not my department,” says Vernher von Braun.

H and K seem to be of the mind that “once the supercomputing and possibly super intelligence is developed who cares who is in control”, or some such variation. It is fine for Physicists, and scientists generally, to claim that their discipline is apolitical but in fact the revelations, consequences of research and obviously the practical applications of science and technology are not apolitical and scientists have an obligation to ensure that the basic principles essential to true scientific research – the characteristics already mentioned – like intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, full access to information, the right to question individuals and paradigms, etc. are also reflected in the society in which science takes place. To do otherwise is senseless and self defeating.

The next great level of societal evolution may indeed be coming upon us – quite probably as a result of the impetus of research in supercomputing and self learning being propelled by the frontiers of Physics research. So H and K may be right in supposing this – in fact I do think this is so myself. All the more reason then, as far as I am concerned, to be sure that developments be made in an open, free and democratic intellectual environment. Such a social environment is at least as fragile as any natural ecosystem and preserving the freedoms of thought and speech that have been bought at great human sacrifice over the ages is essential as part of any discussion of where and how the next frontiers of science are to be developed .

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