Losing a ‘lunatic’ scientist
Huang Danian was a titan among geophysicists. His death is mourned and life celebrated for his achievements and spirit. reports in Changchun.
Huang Danian was a scientist and a selfproclaimed “lunatic”. His mad approach to technology, duty and education enabled China to make great strides toward uncovering the mysteries that hide under the ground we stand on.
He led some of China’s top deep-Earth exploration projects to map the world beneath our planet’s surface, including valuable mineral deposits.
But overwork meant sacrificing his health and time with his family.
Huang died of cancer in January. He was 58.
More than 800 people attended his funeral, including members of the international scientific community.
As he lay in a coma in Jilin province’s Changchun, his daughter in London gave birth to a son, whose name Huang had picked.
His grandson’s name, Chunlun, is a portmanteau of Changchun and London’s Chinese pronunciation, lundun.
These were the cities that meant most to Huang — and he, in turn, made his mark on them.
Huang went to the United Kingdom in 1993 to earn a doctorate in geophysics from Leeds University. He graduated top of his class. The scientist later took an elite private-sector job.
But he felt he’d hit a ceiling after 18 years in the UK. It was time to come home. He was welcomed back to China in 2009 through the country’s Thousand Talents program that seeks to recruit world-class innovators, who are overseas Chinese and foreign nationals, to work in China. The program was initiated the year before.
President Xi Jinping praised his achievements and spirit in May.
The last time Huang saw his daughter was in May 2016, when she got married in London.
“We danced. That was our first dance together — and the last,” media quoted her as saying
Huang lost his father while he was working 1,000 meters below the ocean’s surface in 2004.
And Huang postponed his own medical exams to honor the commitments of his hectic schedule.
“He rarely mentioned his illness,” Jilin University’s deputy head Han Xiaofeng says.
“He retained his passion for his team’s projects. He cherished his research more than life.”
Huang typically worked into the wee hours and caught flights at the last minute, colleagues.say.
It was tiring but meaningful for his driver Liu Guoqiu.
“It was stressful to always rush him to the airport,” Liu says.
But Liu says he came to recognize the importance of Huang’s work. “I didn’t immediately realize he was a scientist because he seemed as ordinary as anybody.”
One day, Huang seemed to sense Liu’s reluctance to take him to the airport at midnight.
“He said: ‘ I’m serving the country. And you’re serving me. So you’re contributing to the country’. I thought he was bragging. Now, I realize what he meant,” Liu recalls.
Huang often asked his office building’s gatekeeper to stay late.
“He frequently worked until midnight or even daybreak,” says the Party secretary of Jilin University’s geo-exploration faculty, Huang Zhongming.
“The building should close by midnight.”
Eventually, the guard stopped asking him to leave.
Colleagues called him a workaholic. But Huang Danian preferred a different label.
“China needs lunatics to become stronger. I would be satisfied if I could be one of them,” he said earlier.
His student Zhou Wenyue says Huang Danian’s students still water the plants in his office.
They brought him meals when he was hospitalized.
“We just wanted to see him,” says his student Wang Taihan.
He says people should not only mourn Huang Danian’s death but also celebrate his life’s vision and dedication by carrying on his legacy.
“We shouldn’t sink into grief but use our time well. We should try to focus on completing what he has started,” Wang says.
“The big projects he applied for are approved. We should work hard on those in the coming years.”
Contact the writer at erik_nilsson@ chinadaily.com.cn
China needs lunatics to become stronger. I would be satisfied if I could be one of them.”
Huang Danian, geophysicist
Huang Danian works in his office in Changchun, Jilin province, in this file photo from 2010. The scientist died of cancer in January.
Huang (center, front row) on a hiking trip with his students. A 1982 portrait photo of Huang and his wish, in writing, to contribute to the country’s development. Huang instructs young colleagues in their research.
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