China’s scientific leap forward
(appeared in June 2016)

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China’s stress on basic sciences has helped home grown research bloom to match the world’s best, says S.Ananthanarayanan.


A decade of focus on science and technology and innovation, as well as expansion of universities and facilities, has led to important research being carried out by Chinese scientists working in China. From space science to biotechnology, genetics, oceans, neuroscience, neutrinos, AI, quantum computing, managing the environment, the levels of pure research in China reflect a successful science policy.

A snapshot of the work being done is presented in the profiles of ten Chinese scientists selected by the editors of the journal, Nature. “These ten individuals highlight the breadth and promise of innovation in China as the country continues its strong push to become a leader in science,” says Richard Monastersky, Features Editor for Nature.

A snapshot of the work being done is presented in the profiles of ten Chinese scientists selected by the editors of the journal, Nature. “These ten individuals highlight the breadth and promise of innovation in China as the country continues its strong push to become a leader in science,” says Richard Monastersky, Features Editor for Nature.

Wu Ji is the Director General of the Chinese National Space Science Center in Beijing, since 2003. Wu Ji has lobbied hard for the Chinese space programme to change direction and promote basic research.
In December 2015, the centre launched the Dark Matter Particle Explorer a 1,400 kg satellite that can detect electrons and gamma rays with greater resolution than other facilities available.
The next mission, due this year, is to launch the Hard X-Ray Modulated Telescope, which uses an innovative technique to build up high resolution images of events in the vicinity of black holes and neutron stars. The collaborative project was conceived by China, which is providing the spacecraft and the main, hard X-Ray imager. China has also planned the launch of five new space science satellites, including a Sino European joint mission, in the next five years, apart from a Mars mission in 2020.

    Nancy IP, Dean for science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has trained in neural biology and worked in biotechnology. The large research team she works with mixes these fields with clinical medicine and looks for answers to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
    Her work, which spans different fields, has won her honours and awards, including the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science award.
    She now plays a leading role in China’s Artificial Brain Project, which seeks to simulate a vast array of ‘neural nets,’ and connect them to create artificial brains. The ‘neural’ modules evolve, like their biological counterparts, but in a supercomputer, and the artificial brain will contain thousands of pattern recognizer and decision modules , to control a walking, talking robot

    Nieng Yan returned from Princeton to work as a structural biologist in Tsinghua University in Beijing, and she looks at how proteins act at the level of atoms. She is known for her work on the membrane that separates the interior of the cell from the surrounding plasma, particularly one that carries glucose to provide energy to the cell. The structure of this protein had evaded researchers for over fifty years because it rapidly changes its shape. Yan used a series of innovative devices to restrict troublesome movements of the protein, and, “bingo — she hit it,” says biochemist Ronald Kaback at the University of California, Los Angeles

    Cui Weicheng of the Shanghai Ocean University is a deep sea diving expert and was there in 2012 when China’s Jiaolong submersible craft went deeper than 7,000 metres into Mariana Trench, in the Pacific. Only a handful of nations have deep sea capability and the Jiaolong is the most powerful device in operation.
    China has increasing leadership in deep sea research and Cui and his team are building a more pressure-resistant, three-person submersible, the Rainbow Fish, to reach the Challenger Deep valley at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 11,000 metres down
    When it is completed in 2020, the vessel will be available for use by scientists around the world, says Cui. “The oceans belong to humanity rather than individual nations.”

    Wang Yifang is director of the Beijing-based Institute of High Energy Physics and he is spearheading the plan to build a 50-100 km particle accelerator, successor to the 27 km facility at CERN, Geneva
    The LHC at CERN was a collaboration of over 10,000 scientists from 100 countries, and suppliers of equipment from the world over. The proposed collider, which would be seven times more powerful, would clearly be more complex and is estimated to cost a cool US$ 6 billion.
     Wang may still be able get the project through on the basis of his impressive success in leading the Daya Bay Reactor neutrino experiment, an international collaboration which beat competitors in the far frontier field of measuring neutrino parameters.
    

    Plant biologist Caixia Gao is a gene editing specialist. She uses the new CRISPR technique for versatile genetic engineering and developing valuable new traits in plants. She has returned to China after a long and successful spell of working with strains of grasses, in Denmark, and is busy working with strains of wheat. Wheat is legendary for being difficult to work with, but Gao is making a mark, just like she did with grasses in Denmark
    Public fears about GM crops have been a damper in allowing gene editing progress to get to the market. But she believes this can be overcome and she is happy to be back in China where agricultural research is a greater priority than in Europe.

    Qiaomei Fu is a geneticist historian who has returned to China fresh after rewriting the history of the earliest humans in Europe, where she used methods of harvesting shreds of DNA in ancient bones, and the the science of how DNA changes when different races mingle. She then turned her attention to other early human migration in Eurasia and she has to her credit the sequencing of the earliest human DNA. This was from a 45,000 year old thigh bone found in Siberia and a 40,000 year old jawbone. Her study of 14,000 to 37,000 year-old remains shows that there were waves of migrants in the Ice Ages, who contributed to the genetic heritage of present day Europeans.
    She is now heads an ancient-DNA lab at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and hopes to unearth even more dramatic goings and comings in early Asia.

    Qin Weijia, executive deputy director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration in Beijing, has been to the Antarctic half a dozen times. Last December, he led an international team which traversed thousands of square kilometres with ice-penetrating radar and other sensors mounted aboard China’s first fixed-wing aircraft, to map features under the ice.
    The team discovered the longest canyon on Earth and one of the largest areas of melt under the ice sheet, says Qin.
    Qin hopes that China will be able to retrieve the oldest ice on the planet, to uncover the history of the Antarctic ice sheets and how they have changed. “Only then,” says Qin, “can we predict how they will respond to a changing climate”

    Chen Jining, as Minister for the Environmental protection, has probably the most challenging clean-up job in the world. After 19 years in academia, rising to be president of Tsinghua University in Peking, Chen turns his attention to manage China’s huge pollution problem, which blacks out cities, contaminates drinking water and poisons cropland.
    While the country on one hand continues to grow in industry, aggravating impact on the environment, Chen manages the complexity of regulation, inspection, implementation, information and innovation, to contain both pollution as well as carbon emission, which has a global dimension. China's ambitious wind and solar energy programme is but one aspect of the transformation of practices and mindsets that are needed in the world’s most populous nation.

    Chaoyang Lu, at the University of Science and Technology of China at Hefei, was described by Anton Zeilinger, pioneering in quantum information theory, as a ‘wizard of entangled photons’. Quantum entanglement is when two separate particles behave as being in a single, combined state, so that measurement of one affects the state of the other. It is the property that allows the different photons striking a green leaf to find the most efficient way for all of them to come together and deliver the best energy to the leaf. Achieving this state in practice could lead to computers of unimaginable speed.
    The best efforts have resulted in ‘entanglement’ of just four photons, but Chaoyang, who is back to work in China, holds the world record at eight, and is working on doing it with ten.

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