Before the Spring Festival, on Feb 2, Premier LI Keqiang met with and held a symposium at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing with foreign expert representatives working in China. At the symposium, LI extended festive greetings and good wishes to foreign experts in China and all those international friends who support China's modernization construction.
Experts from the United States, Italy, Singapore, Nepal, Britain, and France shared their advice and suggestions at the symposium, Prof. Roberto Soria, an Italian professor at School of Astronomy and Space Science of University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) was invited to the symposium to share his experiences and suggestions.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang meets with and holds a symposium with foreign expert representatives working in China before the Spring Festival, or the Chinese Lunar New Year, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Feb. 2, 2021. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)
Prof. Roberto Soria's speaking at the symposium (CCTV)
Prof. Roberto Soria's speech at the symposium:
Dear Premier Li, Distinguished Scholars, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to address this influential audience and share my thoughts about astronomy research. My name is Robert Soria, and I work for the University of the Chinese Academy of Science, at the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing.
First of all, I want to thank the government for the job they are doing to keep the pandemic under control. When I see security guards standing outside my community gates, in the cold, day and night, to check that we follow the correct health procedures, I know that it is thanks to those workers if I can do my comfortable job sitting in my warm office. They keep me and my colleagues safe.
What we do at the National Astronomical Observatories and in other space science departments around the country may not have immediate practical value, it does not save lives, but it has cultural value and long-term economic benefits, as I will mention later.
Space exploration helped cheer people up this year, right when we all needed it. We all felt proud to see Chang'e 5 reach the Moon and come back with its precious stones. We shall all feel proud again when Tianwen 1 lands on Mars, when the Tianhe module of the Chinese Space Station is launched, and when we hear of new discoveries from the 500-m Tianyan radio telescope and other new astronomical facilities.
One reason why astronomy and space exploration capture our imagination and lift our spirit is because of national pride. That has always been part of the space race in every nation. But there is much more than that. As President Xi JinPing said in his opening address to the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Beijing, in 2012, "to explore the vast universe is the common goal of all humankind". Astronomy and physics remind us that the beauty and the order of the universe are much deeper than our current temporary strife here on Earth. The Moon, Mars, the Milky Way have seen many pandemics, wars, economic crises come and go, and they are still out there for us and our future generations to explore.
To do research today we need the right social and economic environment, and a government with the political wisdom to help create, promote and protect that environment. Science thrives and goes hand in hand with three conditions: i) multilateral cooperation between nations; ii) free trade of goods and ideas; iii) sustainable social and economic development. There is a positive feedback between scientific research and those structural conditions, that is they help develop each other. Very little scientific progress has ever come from closed, under-developed countries, and very little socio-economic progress can be achieved without a solid scientific research basis. Let me summarize what those three conditions mean for astronomy.
First, multilateral cooperation: the most exciting discoveries in astronomy are the result of observations from different telescopes or satellites, from different countries, analyzed by multinational teams with complementary expertise. Two black holes may collide in the sky tomorrow: the echo of their collision may be picked up by a gravitational wave detector in the United States; a corresponding burst of high-energy radiation may be seen by the Chinese Insight X-ray telescope orbiting the earth; an optical flash may be observed by a telescope in Chile; and a radio signal may be detected by radio antennae in South Africa. Lands apart, sky shared. It is great news for the reputation of Chinese astronomy that the Tianyan telescope will be open to foreign scientists from this year. But those multilateral collaborations in astronomy and in other fields of research can only happen within a favourable political framework, which governments can guarantee.
Second, free exchange of goods, people and ideas: our research is more successful if we enable foreign scientists to come and work or visit us here; if we can visit them in their countries; if we can meet and present our results at international conferences. Foreign students will benefit from doing part of their degree in China, and vice versa. That is why for example the Chinese Academy of Sciences has opened the CASSACA research centre in Santiago (Chile), to develop cooperation in science and technology. I hope the government can help us create the conditions to open similar research centres in other countries. When my compatriot scholar Matteo Ricci came to live in China, more than 400 years ago, to teach the European knowledge of astronomy and geography, and then when he translated and explained Chinese culture and Confucian philosophy to the Europeans, that was a pioneering example of mutually respectful scientific exchanges.
Third,socio-economic development: scientific research leads to technological innovations. As Premier Li Keqiang said at a recent meeting of the National Science and Technology Leading Group, innovation is the primary force driving development, and China needs to deeply integrate science and technology into the economy to boost its technological strength. Someone might argue: why should we fund astronomy or other pure sciences, instead of focusing on research with more practical applications? The answer is that even pure sciences such as astronomy contribute to technological progress: from computers to mobile phones, from medical equipment to new materials, from X-ray scanners to high-resolution cameras. Moreover, they inspire young people to use their talents, study hard and apply their knowledge to the development of society. When China cooperates with South Africa to build an array of radio telescopes in that country, and the infrastructures required to operate those telescopes, it is not just an astronomy project: it is a channel for creating jobs in previously disadvantaged areas, and developing a more prosperous society. It improves the image of China overseas. International science and international sport are important vehicles of diplomacy.
Let me also briefly mention my personal experience as a visiting scholar at UCAS. I came to live and work in China 4 years ago, 4 years in which I have witnessed first hand the progress and success of Chinese astronomy. I am proud to be involved in one of NAOC's most ambitious long-term projects, called SiTian. We plan to develop and install a network of about 100 optical telescopes over six continents, in order to monitor the whole sky continually every hour and catch unusual events such as stellar explosions or black hole outbursts. In fact, already more than 3000 years ago, Chinese astronomers were the pioneers of this kind of research, the study of things that suddenly and unexpectedly change in the sky, appearing or disappearing (sometimes it was a good omen, sometimes a bad omen). We have records of "guest stars" (novae or supernovae) observed in the Shang dynasty and recorded on oracle bones. Now we want China to lead the world in this field again. An ambitious project such as SiTian, installed across many countries, requires multilateral collaborations, for example within the countries of the BRICS group, and within the Belt and Road Initiative. We have begun to establish contacts and mutual trust at the scientists' level, before we can work on memoranda of understanding at the political level.
In conclusion, I am confident and optimistic that scientific innovation will continue to contribute to the development of the Chinese economy. Specifically for astronomy, the new facilities and research projects that China will develop over the course of the 14th Five-Year Plan will solve some long-standing mysteries of the universe, but also reveal new mysteries and questions to be explored by the next generation of scientists. I will be proud to have walked a little bit along this endless road, in the excellent company of my UCAS and NAOC colleagues.
I thank you very much for your hospitality at this meeting and in this country, and I thank the government for their renewed investment of money and trust in scientific research for the years to come.
Further reading: Chinese premier holds symposium with foreign experts in China
Editor: GAO Yuan