Reach for the stars

For thousands of years, thinkers have grappled to understand the origins of the universe. Now, this question has been included, alongside more terrestrial topics such as agriculture, in China’s new economic and social development plan.

In the draft outline of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), which was presented to the Fourth Session of the 12th National People’s Congress for review on Saturday, the evolution of the universe was given pride of place on the scientific research list. It was followed by material structure, the origins of life and neurology.

“This is the first time China has included discovering the origins of the universe in its medium- and long-term plan,” Han Song, a Chinese sci-fi writer, said. “So, like the ancient philosophers – Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu more than 2,000 years ago – modern thinkers are deliberating the ultimate question of existence,” Han said. “Fundamental questions, like this, have the power to influence solutions to some of the most prominent problems faced by society, and the world at large,” said Han.

According to the draft, China will launch projects exploring quantum communication, deep space exploration, water saving and irrigation, and pollution control. Zhang Xinmin, a researcher with the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and also a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), said that the inclusion of research into the 13th Five-Year Plan shows that the country is beginning to value science.

Zhang, who is involved in research into gravitational waves in Ngari prefecture, Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, said innovation requires research. Without it, innovation on a large scale is unachievable. Studying the origin of the universe may seem unrelated to the government’s other objectives, such as lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty by 2020.

However, Hugo Award-winning author Liu Cixin said many problems rely on advances in science and technology. Currently, about 5 percent of China’s research investment is channeled to fundamental research. Whereas in the United States and Germany, that figure is 40 percent and 28 percent respectively. “Since the 13th Five-Year Plan includes basic research, we expect more science facilities will be built. More investment will bring more opportunities,” Liu said.

On December 17, 2015, the dark matter particle explorer (DAMPE), the country’s first astronomical satellite, was launched to explore the secrets of the universe. “Although China still lags behind scientifically-advanced countries in some areas, we should not belittle ourselves. We have made great strides in basic science and space science. As long as we are diligent, in the near future we will achieve great success,” said Chang Jin, chief scientist with DAMPE and vice director of the CAS Purple Mountain Observatory.

Another three scientific satellites one for quantum experiments, another for microgravity research and life science, and an X-ray telescope to observe black holes, neutron stars and other phenomena, will launch this year. “If China wants to be a strong global nation, it should not only care about its immediate interests, but also contribute to humankind. Only that can win China the real respect of the world,” said Wu Ji, director of CAS National Space Science Center.

According to Wu, the space center has mapped out the space strategy for the coming 15 years, featuring areas such as extra-terrestrial intelligence and extra-solar planets, the formation and evolution of the solar system, solar activity and its impact on the geo-space environment, physical laws beyond the existing basic physical theory, and life in space.

China will launch another five or six scientific satellites by 2020, which will aid research into black hole, dark matter and quantum physics, Wu said. “If you want to innovate, you must have knowledge of the sciences. Space science is inseparable from China’s innovation-driven development,” said Wu.

Ye Peijian, a CAS academic and member of the CPPCC National Committee, said China’s probe is expected to land on Mars in 2021. “Exploring the red planet and deep space will mean that China can establish itself as a scientific and technological expert. The knock-on effect is that inventions and independent intellectual property rights will surge, and, as a result, China’s core competence will increase, pushing development in other industries,” said Jia Yang, deputy chief designer of Yutu, China’s first moon rover. (Global Times).