FAST FOR­WARD

“超级天眼”背后的科技热情COVER STORY

The World of Chinese - - News - TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY WU HAO (吴皓)

Deep in the karst land­scape of Guizhou prov­ince, FAST is scan­ning the skies for signs of ex­trater­res­trial life. The world's big­gest ra­dio tele­scope rep­re­sents not only China's am­bi­tions in the skies but also a decades-long mis­sion to be a space power on Earth—as well as bring­ing “science-led” tourism de­vel­op­ment to FAST'S sur­round­ing vil­lages. As China tries to bring for­eign-ed­u­cated tal­ent back home, and a young nat­u­ral­ist makes science cool on Weibo, China's am­bi­tion of be­com­ing a sci­en­tific power is well un­der­way

“I’m re­ally not very in­ter­ested in science, I’m sorry to say,” claims the chief sci­en­tist and en­gi­neer of the world’s largest ra­dio tele­scope, Nan Ren­dong. Jok­ing or not, it’s prob­a­bly fair to say that there’s never been greater in­ter­est in science among many Chi­nese to­day. Although the gov­ern­ment has al­ways os­ten­si­bly pro­moted science, in­cor­po­rat­ing slo­gans such as “sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ment” into its rubric, pol­icy and prac­tice has not al­ways lived up to am­bi­tion. Yet to­day, China may be on the cusp of a new sci­en­tific revo­lu­tion, an­nounc­ing fresh dis­cov­er­ies and plans with head- spin­ning reg­u­lar­ity. And while, to be sure, not ev­ery­thing is likely to pan out per­fectly, the sense of op­ti­mism is enough to en­sure that more and more Chi­nese and for­eign sci­en­tists are con­sid­er­ing in­vest­ing their time and re­search skills in main­land lab­o­ra­to­ries, rather than abroad. Over the next few pages, we ex­am­ine a few of th­ese ad­vances, from the en­gi­neer­ing tri­umph of the FAST tele­scope, to the sci­en­tific re­turnees and young peo­ple find­ing new in­ter­est in the nat­u­ral world on Weibo, ex­am­in­ing both the chal­lenges and pos­si­bil­i­ties that lie ahead—in the next and pos­si­ble fi­nal fron­tier.

It takes at least five hours’ hard driv­ing from Guiyang, plus a ve­hi­cle change if us­ing public trans­port, to reach the place many now call “the fu­ture of as­tron­omy.”

Kedu has a pop­u­la­tion of around 30,000, and around 10 per­cent are on the poverty line; the rest are mostly rice and corn farm­ers, mak­ing an av­er­age 8,000 USD per capita. It is also home to the 185 mil­lion USD, Five-hun­dred-me­ter Aper­ture Spher­i­cal ra­dio Tele­scope—known as FAST, and nick­named “the Eye of Heaven.” Cur­rently the world’s largest ra­dio tele­scope, FAST nes­tles in­side a vast nat­u­ral karst de­pres­sion in re­motest south­ern Guizhou prov­ince, silently search­ing for signs of ex­trater­res­trial ac­tiv­ity.

The huge di­am­e­ter—200 me­ters wider than the pre­vi­ous record-holder, Puerto Rico’s 300-me­ter Arecibo Ob­ser­va­tory (though its max­i­mum il­lu­mi­nated aper­ture is only 30 me­ters larger)—isn’t sim­ply a mat­ter of brag­ging rights: The big­ger the dish, the more grav­i­ta­tional waves it can col­lect; the fainter their sig­nals, the fur­ther back in time they go: 13.7 bil­lion light years, to be pre­cise. FAST has 4,450 pan­els, dou­ble the Arecibo, and, as one sci­en­tist put it, if “filled with wine, each of the world’s seven bil­lion in­hab­i­tants could fill about five bot­tles from it.” With this vast astro­nom­i­cal re­cep­ta­cle, re­searchers hope to ex­plore the deep­est se­crets of space and, per­haps, an­swer the most press­ing ques­tion of all: Are we alone in the uni­verse?

As TWOC ar­rived in Kedu, we as­suredly were not alone: Hun­dreds of work­ers were swarm­ing over two large con­struc­tion sites, from which the fa­mil­iar sounds of clank­ing and dig­ging em­anated. In the vil­lages of Kedu and Han­g­long, a lit­tle over five kilo­me­ters from the FAST site, an­other equally ea­gerly awaited project is go­ing on: the “Ping­tang In­ter­na­tional Ra­dio Science Tourism and Cul­tural Park,” which lo­cals are call­ing “the fu­ture of tourism” (TWOC vis­ited in March, 2017; the park was sched­uled for com­ple­tion in Septem­ber, ex­actly a year af­ter FAST of­fi­cially went into use).

Ac­cord­ing to a tourism brochure

pub­lished by the local gov­ern­ment, the park will in­clude a wel­come square, an as­tron­omy ed­u­ca­tion park, an “astro­nom­i­cal time vil­lage,” the FAST vis­i­tor ser­vice cen­ter, the Gal­axy Vor­tex Tour Cen­tral Plaza, a del­i­cacy street, and a four-star re­sort ho­tel—this is in ad­di­tion to the 46 ho­tels and over 100 restau­rants that have been built in the area to cater for the in­flux of tourism that’s al­ready be­gun flood­ing in.

If tourism and cut­ting-edge re­search seem like strange bed­fel­lows, they aren’t—at least, not for China. In Septem­ber 2016, when the tele­scope went into op­er­a­tion, it was hailed by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping as an achieve­ment in “in­no­va­tion-led de­vel­op­ment.” Ar­tic­u­lated in China’s 13th Five Year Plan (2016 – 2020), the phrase sum­ma­rizes a decade of ef­fort by the Chi­nese lead­er­ship to move past an econ­omy based on man­u­fac­tur­ing and low-cost la­bor. Of­fi­cials in Ping­tang county claims that “Big Tourism,” as gen­er­ated by FAST, will “push for­ward local eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment” of local vil­lages.

“Push­ing for­ward”, or some­times “pulling for­ward”, is ru­ral of­fi­cials’ ver­sion of trickle-down eco­nom­ics: At­tract­ing a flow of na­tional re­sources and ur­ban cap­i­tal to their com­mu­ni­ties, then hop­ing for the best. Many of those who’ve lived their whole lives in Kedu do not know what the ra­dio tele­scope is; nev­er­the­less, they’re en­cour­aged to keep up with this ex­tra­or­di­nary pace of de­vel­op­ment by plant­ing spe­cialty pro­duce, sell­ing local hand­i­crafts, and cook­ing “eco-friendly farm­house meals” for vis­i­tors. Around town, busi­nesses have been putting up new sig­nage—“as­tro Com­puter Re­pair,” “Milky Way Ren­o­va­tion Ser­vices.”

On the town’s nar­row main street, al­most ev­ery house­hold had new ex­ten­sions like alien growths on their scrappy ru­ral homes. In one par­tially com­pleted build­ing, 54-year-old Li Changfu ate din­ner and drank home­made rice wine with his wife and three fel­low con­struc­tion work­ers. Li was born in Jinke vil­lage, three kilo­me­ters from the FAST site, and leased a 420 square-me­ter par­cel of land in Kedu in 1994 for 6,000 RMB (905 USD). He had since taken out a 6 mil­lion RMB loan (907, 560 USD) to con­vert his house into a four-story ho­tel with a su­per­mar­ket on the ground floor. “What do you think I should call it?” he asked, his cheeks flush with ex­cite­ment and al­co­hol. He had ev­ery rea­son to be pleased: The land un­der our feet was now worth 5,000 RMB per square me­ter. Less than a hun­dred me­ters away, the As­tro Palace Ho­tel, which opened six months ago, has al­most 100-per­cent oc­cu­pancy, mostly con­trac­tors and

tourists. In the lobby of the As­tro, there are four clocks la­beled New York, Lon­don, Paris and Beijing for “in­ter­na­tional fla­vor;” only the Beijing one works.

A lack of tourists is not the prob­lem, then. Quite the opposite, in fact, as far as FAST’S op­er­a­tors are con­cerned. In or­der to prop­erly work, the tele­scope needs a unique “sound elec­tro­mag­netic wave en­vi­ron­ment,” ac­cord­ing to Guizhou of­fi­cial Li Yuecheng—hence its re­mote­ness. Smart­phones are not al­lowed on site, and a per­mit is re­quired to use even dig­i­tal cam­eras within five kilo­me­ters of the site. But with an es­ti­mated four mil­lion vis­i­tors in its first year of op­er­a­tion, a fig­ure that’s ex­pected to more than dou­ble this year, many won­der how FAST’S re­quire­ment for com­plete dig­i­tal si­lence can be prop­erly bal­anced with the eco­nomic boom the tele­scope is bring­ing to the re­gion.

“We un­der­stand their urge to de­velop the econ­omy and get rid of poverty,” a FAST re­searcher told the South China Morn­ing Post, but the con­flict of in­ter­ests be­tween sci­en­tific en­deavor and poverty re­lief may come down to a mat­ter of money, es­pe­cially if some local of­fi­cials have their way. The do­mes­tic tourism busi­ness is ex­pected to bring around 4.6 bil­lion RMB (690 mil­lion USD) to the area an­nu­ally, a fig­ure which dwarfs the daily op­er­a­tional costs of FAST, es­ti­mated at 400,000 RMB (or 146 mil­lion RMB a year).

There “will be as many as the tourists to the Great Wall in Beijing,” one Ping­tang county tourism of­fi­cial told the news­pa­per. “Here we have a new won­der of the world.” A mon­u­ment to China’s vi­sion, the FAST tele­scope also stands in dan­ger of be­com­ing a vic­tim of its own suc­cess.

The sci­en­tific side of the project is hav­ing grow­ing pains of its own. There’s no doubt FAST’S ca­pa­bil­i­ties are am­bi­tious; its su­perla­tive size al­lows as­tronomers to study fainter and more dis­tant space ob­jects than ever be­fore. Cur­rently, its aims are to ob­serve pul­sars, study in­ter­stel­lar mol­e­cules, and de­tect “in­ter­stel­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion sig­nals”—in other words, look for ex­tra-ter­res­trial life.

De­spite in­ter­na­tional me­dia in­ter­est, aliens have barely made a splash in China’s press—for the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Science (CAS), it may be enough if the FAST can sim­ply “pull for­ward” the na­tional space

pro­gram. Born in the 1960s un­der prag­matic cir­cum­stances, as part of a mis­sile pro­gram to de­ter a pos­si­ble US in­va­sion, the space pro­gram re­ceived a boost, as well as a more com­pre­hen­sive aim of na­tional se­cu­rity, with the re­turn of rocket sci­en­tist Qian Xue­sen from the US in 1955 dur­ing the Sec­ond Red Scare. The blueprint for a bom­bas­tic fu­ture in space ex­plo­ration was ar­guably set in 1957, af­ter the USSR and US launched their first satel­lites. The fol­low­ing year, Mao Ze­dong an­nounced China’s in­ten­tion to get on an equal foot­ing with the su­per­pow­ers: “We should also do artificial satel­lites; and if we do, we should do it big.”

China launched a space satel­lite in 1970, sev­eral months af­ter NASA put the first men on the moon. Now in Beijing there is talk, some­times feverish, of manned missions to Mars and moon bases; great leaps and astro­nom­i­cal revolutions, with Chi­nese as­tro­nauts rid­ing “di­vine ves­sels” into space; China ex­pects to be­come a great space power by 2030.

IN BEIJING THERE IS FEVERISH TALK OF MANNED MISSIONS TO MARS AND MOON BASES; GREAT LEAPS AND ASTRO­NOM­I­CAL REVOLUTIONS

This field of re­search, how­ever, still strug­gles with “brain drain” and lack of ex­pe­ri­ence among main­land sci­en­tists—lead­ing to re­ports, hotly re­pu­di­ated, that FAST was look­ing for a “for­eign sci­en­tist” as its direc­tor. The prob­lem has not been helped by China rel­a­tive iso­la­tion on the in­ter­na­tional space stage, as sci­en­tists strug­gle to get pub­lished in in­ter­na­tional jour­nals. Chi­nese as­tro­nauts are barred cer­tain from in­ter­na­tional projects—notably the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion—by a US gov­ern­ment sus­pi­cious of its space pro­gram’s mil­i­tary ties. CAS has variously stated the goals of FAST as “the na­tional pop­u­lar­iza­tion of science,” “ed­u­ca­tion of youth,” “aid in the de­vel­op­ment of China’s western re­gions,” and “let­ting China take greater re­spon­si­bil­ity in the world’s astro­nom­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.”

They are ob­jec­tives that have re­quired vast mo­bi­liza­tions of peo­ple and re­sources. In or­der to en­sure the least elec­tro­mag­netic in­ter­fer­ence, 9,110 peo­ple had to move out of the five-kilo­me­ter range that FAST needed for op­ti­mum per­for­mance. Though some younger vil­lagers were pleased to leave when con­struc­tion be­gan in 2009; oth­ers were not. “The gov­ern­ment only com­pen­sated us for our hous­ing space,” Yang Tian­ming, 54, com­plained. “Farm­land was not in­cluded.” He wasn’t done: “They promised me for a job in Kedu, in or­der to make us sign the re­lo­ca­tion agree­ment, but no­body cares about us any­more now. Now I’m a farmer, with­out land!” Yang sighed and smoked. He has a hard time get­ting ex­cited about a tele­scope that can dis­cover mega-masers, mea­sure their ra­dial ve­loc­i­ties with higher pre­ci­sion, de­tect pul­sars, and work as a ground sta­tion for fu­ture missions to Mars, but can’t pro­vide him with work for his grow­ing fam­ily.

An eight-lane mo­tor­way and two ex­press­ways are now be­ing built to con­nect Guiyang, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, and its air­port with Ping­tang, where en­tire dis­tricts are al­ready on the rise. In FAST’S “core area,” where a re­lo­ca­tion of­fice is si­t­u­ated, a blueprint for de­vel­op­ment can be found the form of a ta­ble model dis­play­ing shop­ping cen­ters and dozens of res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial projects; out­side, trucks and cranes are putting parts of it into re­al­ity with huge quan­ti­ties of sand and ce­ment. There was more build­ing go­ing on in the hills around Kedu, as farm­ers fran­ti­cally erected tem­po­rary hous­ing in or­der to qual­ify for more com­pen­sa­tion.

Cheng Zey­ong is one res­i­dent still

FAST CAN DIS­COVER MEGA-MASERS AND DE­TECT PUL­SARS, AND WORK AS A GROUND STA­TION FOR FU­TURE MISSIONS TO MARS, BUT CAN'T HELP YANG PRO­VIDE FOR HIS FAM­ILY

hold­ing out for a hand­out. Chen said the deal he was of­fered for his 70-year-old fam­ily home, now the sole re­main­ing “nail house” in the three-square-kilo­me­ter re­de­vel­op­ment area for the cul­ture park, was less than half the na­tional stan­dard. “The gov­ern­ment of­fered us 1,000 RMB per square me­ter,” he said. “It costs nearly 3,000 [per square me­ter] for a new house in town. I’ll need to pay hun­dred of thou­sands even if I get the com­pen­sa­tion.”

He has mixed feel­ings about the project. “I’m proud and happy to see the tele­scope be­ing built in my home­town, even though I don’t re­ally know what it’s used for… it’s good for Kedu and vil­lagers, but I don’t think we should pay the price. We are just hardworking farm­ers.”

Past 11 p.m., most Kedu peo­ple are head­ing to bed, but the park’s con­struc­tion site a few kilo­me­ters away is still brightly lit, with ve­hi­cles and ma­chin­ery rum­bling through the night. Mean­while, re­searchers and as­tronomers are qui­etly get­ting on with their work. In Oc­to­ber, they made their first proper dis­cov­ery, a pair of pul­sars thou­sands of light years away, spin­ning stars that cre­ate an elec­tro­mag­netic ra­di­a­tion beam (“pulse”) that like a light­house in space. The dis­cov­er­ies “sym­bol­ize the dawn of a new era of sys­tem­atic dis­cov­er­ies by Chi­nese ra­dio tele­scopes,” said Yan Jun, direc­tor of the Na­tional Astro­nom­i­cal Ob­ser­va­to­ries of China, at a press con­fer­ence in Oc­to­ber. Per­haps the fu­ture of hu­man­ity lies in look­ing to the stars—for those on the ground, though, the sky’s the limit. - AD­DI­TIONAL RE­PORT­ING BY HATTY LIU AND HAN RUBO (韩儒博)

“FAST IS GOOD FOR KEDU AND VIL­LAGERS, BUT I DON'T THINK WE SHOULD PAY THE PRICE. WE ARE JUST HARDWORKING FARM­ERS”

Fif­teen-year-old Yuan Tian­hui works at the As­tro Palace Ho­tel, where three of the “in­ter­na­tional” clocks are just for show. Yuan be­gan high school in Septem­ber, but has never seen the tele­scope

The FAST project un­der con­struc­tion in 2014 in Ping­tang county, Qian­nan Buyi Au­ton­o­mous Pre­fec­ture, Guizhou. Sci­en­tists hope it may be able to de­tect in­ter­stel­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tions sig­nals that dis­play ev­i­dence of ex­trater­res­trial in­tel­li­gence

A res­i­dent mo­tors past the site of a shop­ping mall, 2 kilo­me­ters from down­town Kedu

A gi­ant pro­pa­ganda board greets vis­i­tors to Han­g­long, urg­ing party mem­bers to get on board with de­vel­op­ing a “small as­tron­omy town”

Cheng Weix­ian runs his own con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als com­pany in Han­g­long but is un­sat­is­fied with the re­lo­ca­tion agree­ment: “it's dif­fi­cult for me to rent a shop there,” he says. “I just can't af­ford the rent”

Mi­grant work­ers leave the Cul­tural Park's con­struc­tion site af­ter work

A re­sult of the world­wide ef­fort started by the 1993 In­ter­na­tional Union of Ra­dio Science con­fer­ence to build the next gen­er­a­tion of ra­dio tele­scope, the FAST project be­gan con­struc­tion in 2011, and was com­pleted in Septem­ber 2016

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