SCIENCE IN CHINA: HISTORY, ADVANCES AND THE NOBEL PRIZE

SCIENCE IN CHINA

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Drawing of a comet from 1664
Before the Communists came to power much of the scientific work done in China in the 19th century and early 20th century had been done by foreigners. Mao Zedong decided to change all that and get Chinese scientists to do the work the foreigners did.

Mao dabbled with physics. He enjoyed talking to internationally-renowned physicists and applied some physics theories to Chinese Communism. However the Cultural Revolution that occurred under his watch set Chinese science back decades. Jiang Zemin once expressed his puzzlement that so many Western scientists believe in God.

Many of the advances that occurred under Mao were in nuclear physics and related to China’s effort to build a nuclear bomb. Increasingly Chinese scientists are facing problems getting visas to the United States because of security concerns, especially in sensitive areas like spy encryption.

The Chinese government views science as critical to its modernization effort. Spending on science and technology increased by 8 percent in 2010 to $24 billion. China devotes significant resources to building a world-class education system and pioneering research in competitive industries and sciences. It has singled out major industries and technologies for rapid development such as supercomputers and jumbo jets and has had notable successes in network computing, clean energy, and military technology. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 6, 2010]

See Universities

Good Websites and Sources: Science in China Press scichina.com ; Library of Congress Article from the 1980s lcweb2.loc.gov ; China Page chinapage.org ; aleph0.clarku.edu ; Wikipedia article on Science and Technology in China Wikipedia ;Science and Civilization by Joseph Needham in China Series Needham Research Institute ; Links in this Website: SCIENCE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE INVENTIONS--GUNPOWDER, MACHINES, FOODS AND CHAIRS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE INVENTIONS --PAPER, MONEY, ASTRONOMY, CLOCKS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE SPACE PROGRAM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRIES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

Chinese Measurement

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Record of a nova
in 1300 B.C.
The Chinese measurement of distance, the li, is 654 yards, which is approximately one third of a mile. Two and half li equals 1 kilometer. 1 chih equals .3 meters (1 foot)

The Chinese measurement of weight, the shih catty (or catty, or kin) equals .6 kilos, or 1⅓ pounds. About 800 catties is equal to 1000 pounds. 1 picul (tan) = 100 catties, or 133 ⅓ pounds. 1 catty = 16 taels (liang).

1 Ping equals 36 square feet (about 3.3 square meters). 1,224 pings equals 1 acre. 1 tou = 1 to 1½ gallons.

History of Science and Scholarship in China

While Western scientific inquiry has emphasized experimentation, investigation and empiricism, Chinese philosophy and science have explored the reason why things are the way they are. In China, alchemy did not evolve into chemistry as it did in the West.

Science and scholarship has traditionally been something pursued only by the elite. In 1407, the Chinese completed a 11,095-volume encyclopedia. Three copies were made.

Book: Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham.

The Cultural revolution was a set back for Chinese science. Scientists who worked then were hounded and harassed or sent off to do menial labor. Those that came afterward left China if they could with many taking up foreign citizenship.

Early Chinese Astronomy

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Anceint theory of solar system
According to a text from the 3rd century B.C., "When the handle of the Dipper points to the east at nightfall, it is spring in all the world. When the handle of the Dipper points to the south, it is summer in all the world. When the handle of the Dipper points to the west, it is autumn in all the world. When the handle of the Dipper points to the north, it is winter in all the world. As the handle of the Dipper revolves above, so affairs are set below."

Chinese and Anasazi recorded the super nova in Taurus in 1054.

Court astrologers viewed the visible universe as the inside of an egg with the Earth as a yoke. Astronomy was applied to organizing the spiritual and agricultural calender. See Temple of Heaven, Beijing, Places

See Chinese Firsts, History

Chinese Numbers

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abacus
Chinese mathematicians invented the decimal point, and are also believed to have developed the concept of zero, and then introduced it to the Hindus who introduced it to the Arabs who finally passed it on to Europe in the Middle Ages. But despite these advances it took the Chinese a long time to use the screw.

The Chinese number system is based on hundreds not thousands. Chinese people often have difficulty working with large American and European numbers such as hundred thousands, millions and billions and sometimes have to write the number down and count the zeros and insert the commas to get the numbers straight.

In 1996, a 12-year-old Chinese set a world's record by reciting the value of pi to 4,000 places in 25 minutes and 30 seconds.

Chinese Time

All China sets its clocks by Beijing time. Even though China is approximately the same width as the United States---3000 miles---it has only one time zone. This means that clock time in western China is out of wack with daylight and nighttime hours. see Xinjiang

The Chinese check the accuracy of their atomic clocks by tuning into Soviet television at 9:59 every evening and measuring how long the signals take to arrive in Beijing, within a billionth of a second. [Source: John Boslough, National Geographic, March 1990]

Chinese Calendar, See Holidays and Festivals, People and Life

Chinese scientist pointed out that if the 21st century begins at zero hours Greenwich mean time then the first sunrise occurred along a line that passes through eastern Russia, western China and eastern India and the Bay of Bengal.

Archeology in China

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Banpo archeological site
The Chinese Institute of Archeology was founded in 1950, a year after the Communists came to power. The Communists have traditionally regarded archeology as being of national importance and a means of validating the Marxist model of social evolution. However, during the Cultural Revolution, archeologists were hounded and harassed like other scientists and archeological study came to a stand still. A major oracle bone scholar committed suicide.

Archeology laws were changed in 1991, allowing foreign scientists to participate in excavations.

Many great discoveries have been made by construction crews. A number of relics---the oldest dating back to the Han dynasty---were unearthed in Beijing during construction of the Olympics. Jinsha, an ancient site, was discovered by construction workers is in a suburb of Chengdu. Among the relics that were unearthed there were gold headgear, a gold mask, jewelry and elephant tusks.

A 3000-year-old site in Nanjing was severely damaged by a Chinese construction company building a section of the high-speed railroad between Beijing and Shanghai. Nearly 2000 square meters of the site was damaged after the construction company continued working after it was told to halt by archeologists. The company was finally ordered by the government to stop. It faced fines of $73,000 for the damage it caused.

Construction crews often hide archeological site, destroy them intentionally or fail to notify experts so they don’t have to shut down the sites.

Using 3-D technology, researchers at the University of Jilin have re-created the original appearance of people mummified 1,700 years ago in Xinjiang

A government survey released in 2009 found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development.

In August 2010, the Chinese government said it was considering dropping the death penalty for smuggling cultural relics out of the country. [Source: AP]

See Looting, Art, Arts, Media, Sports

Recent History of Science and Technological Development

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “On March 3, 1986, four of China’s top weapons scientists---each a veteran of the missile and space programs’sent a private letter to Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the country. Their letter was a warning: Decades of relentless focus on militarization had crippled the country’s civilian scientific establishment; China must join the world’s xin jishu geming , the “new technological revolution,” they said, or it would be left behind. They called for an élite project devoted to technology ranging from biotech to space research. Deng agreed, and scribbled on the letter, “Action must be taken on this now.” This was China’s “Sputnik moment,” and the project was code-named the 863 Program, for the year and month of its birth. In the years that followed, the government pumped billions of dollars into labs and universities and enterprises, on projects ranging from cloning to underwater robots. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

“When Hu Jintao called on China to adopt a “scientific concept of development,” in 2003, he was making a point: China’s history of development at all costs had run its course. And, in ways that were easy to overlook, China had embarked on deep changes. Learning, in technology terms, is another way of saying “reducing cost.” The more a technology is produced, the cheaper it becomes, and that can lead to change as revolutionary as dreaming up an invention in the first place: Henry Ford invented neither the automobile nor the assembly line. He simply perfected their combination to yield the world’s first affordable cars.” [Ibid]

“In the same way, technology that is too expensive to be profitable in the West can become economical once China is involved; DVD players and flat-screen televisions were luxury goods until Chinese low-cost production made them ubiquitous. So far, many of the most promising energy technologies---from thin-film solar cells to complex systems that store carbon in depleted oil wells---are luxury goods, but the combination of Chinese manufacturing and American innovation is powerful; Kevin Czinger, a former Goldman Sachs executive, called it “the Apple model.” “Own the brand, the design, and the intellectual property,” he said, and then go to whoever can manufacture the technology reliably and cheaply. “

Patents and Technology in China

International patent filings in 2010: 1) United States (44,855 patents, down 1.7 percent from the previous year); 2) Japan (32,156 patents, ); 3) China (12,337 patents, up 56 percent percent from the previous year); 4) South Korea (9,686 patents, up 20.5 percent from the previous year). [Source: World Intellectual property Organization]

In 2010, ZTE Corp, China’s second biggest maker of phone network equipment was No.2. l in international patent filings behind Panasonic with 1,863. Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant, applied for more international patents than any other firm in 2008.

Yale’s Stephen Roach wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “China is rising in terms of international patent applications. At the same time, China is targeting a research-and-development share of GDP of 2.2 percent by 2015---double the ratio in 2002. This fits with the 12th Five-Year Plan’s new focus on innovation-based “strategic emerging industries” “ energy conservation, new-generation information technology, biotechnology, high-end equipment manufacturing, renewable energy, alternative materials, and autos running on alternative fuels. Currently, these seven industries account for 3 percent of Chinese GDP; the government is targeting a 15 percent share by 2020, a significant move up the value chain.”

John Pomfret wrote in the Washington Post, “China's attempts to fight what it sees as the stranglehold of foreign patents and intellectual property rights have also had hiccups. China is estimated to have paid foreign firms more than $100 billion in royalties to use mobile telephone technology developed in the West, according to executives of Western communications companies. [Source: John Pomfret, Washington Post, Tuesday, May 25, 2010]

So in the late 1990s, it decided to develop its own. But after more than $30 billion in development costs, its unique technology still has fewer than 20 million users in a market of more than 500 million. Handset makers have told China's government that they won't produce phones equipped with the new technology unless they are given subsidies. And China has resorted to giving away the technology to Romania and South Korea to encourage broader use.

"China is still stuck," said Joerg Wuttke, former president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China and a 25-year veteran of doing business in China. "There is a huge disconnect between the money spent in universities and the lack of products."

China and the Nobel Prize

No Chinese has won a Nobel Prize without leaving his homeland. Chinese-Americans have won several Nobel prizes. They include Chen-Ning Yang of Brookhaven Laboratory and Tsung-Dao Lee of Columbia University. A big deal was about Steven Chu, an ethnic Chinese and American citizen, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “The Nobel Prize is an object of obsession in China, and a consistently maddening one. “How far are we from a Nobel Prize” was the title of a science program on Chinese state television some years ago, and similar discussions pop up in the paper all the time. Driven by both insecurity and pride, the government and academia have pursued Nobel prizes for scientists and writers with such intensity that all the analysis and prognostication begin to look like elements of a state campaign---which, in fact, they are. “The task of securing a Nobel Literature Prize---viewed as a passport to world recognition as a modern civilization---generated conferences, a national literature prize, delegations to Sweden and countless articles,” Julia Lovell, the British sinologist, writes in “The Politics of Cultural Capital,” her 2006 book dissecting China’s quest for the Nobel Prize in Literature.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 28, 2010]

“During the nineteen-eighties, Nobel prizes of any kind were elevated in the Chinese official mindset into emblems of prestige akin to hosting the Olympic Games, or qualifying for the World Cup, or getting into the World Trade Organization. The quest for prizes was so intense that Chinese commentators began to talk about the country’s “Nobel complex,” framing the hunt for prizes as a matter of national emotional health. “The Nobel Literature Prize had become a cause of a psychological disorder, a token whose value and authority as imagined in China was inflated out of all proportions to its real importance or exchange value in international letters,” Lovell writes.” [Ibid]

“But when China actually won the prize for literature, it was not at all what it had hoped: the prize went to Gao Xingjian, a Chinese-born exile writer, who was living in France. His writings were sharply critical of China, and the government in Beijing responded by denouncing the “political purposes” of the Nobel Prize and declaring that the prize had lost its legitimacy. (Gao was eventually listed as a “French” writer.) [Ibid]

Chinese Junkets for Nobel Prize Jurors

In 2008, questions were raised about Nobel prize jurors who accepted all-expenses-paid trips to China to discuss the awards, a Swedish prosecutor said. Anti-corruption prosecutor Nils-Erik Schultz said he opened the investigation to determine whether the trips in 2006 and 2008 were meant to influence the decisions of the Nobel committees. He declined to name the jurors. [Source: The Guardian December 19, 2008]

The investigation was prompted by a Swedish radio report which said three jurors from the medicine, chemistry and physics committees were invited to China to explain the selection process and what it takes to win a Nobel prize. Chinese authorities paid for their plane tickets, hotels and meals, the report said. If charged and convicted, the jurors would face fines or up to two years in prison. But Swedish prosecutors often drop preliminary investigations without pressing charges.

Gunnar Oquist, the permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards prizes in chemistry, physics and economics, acknowledged that the trips were inappropriate. “We should be very careful not to put ourselves in a situation where the Nobel committee's work can be called into question,” he said. Five Europeans, four Americans and three Japanese received the 2008 awards. The last time China claimed a science price was in 1957.

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3) Brooklyn College; 4) Banpo archeological site; 5) Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; 6) Defence Talk

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2011

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