Food for thought and nourishment in Beijing

FAST under construction in 2015. Image: Psr1909/Wikimedia Commons
FAST under construction in 2015. Image: Psr1909/Wikimedia Commons

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it actually worked.

Shortly after I arrived in Beijing, I learned about a European Union programme that encouraged young European scientists to pursue research in China. The EU’s Science and Technology Fellowship programme aimed to build long-term links between research institutions by placing young European scientists in Chinese research groups for a period of two years each.

Unfortunately, political horizons are usually too short to fully appreciate long-term benefits. A change in the European Parliament’s composition led to closure of the programme after having provided this unique opportunity to only two cohorts. Now, several years later, I know of quite a few fellows who established long-term links between their European home universities and their Chinese hosts, resulting in mutually beneficial, long-term collaborations.

I was reminded of this highly successful programme last weekend, since I’d been invited to give a public lecture on China’s ambitions in astronomy and space science to an audience composed of members of the Royal Asiatic Society and regulars of the monthly science cafes we have been organizing in Beijing for a number of years.

The invitation to speak was triggered by last September’s inauguration of the FAST radio telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (above right), located in China’s southern province of Guizhou. In the meantime, in late December the Chinese government also released its long-awaited white paper on space, which prompted me to explore the history of Chinese space science.

So, why did this remind me of the Science and Technology Fellows? As active young scientists, they initiated a lively programme of public talks known as Understanding Science; in fact, since the Chinese character dǒng means “to understand”, the movement’s logo includes a visual word play involving the word understanding/-dǒng. When the programme ended in 2012, these science cafes were left in limbo.

Therefore, as Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Chemistry representatives in China, we decided to take over the coordination of these monthly public lectures in English, and the rest is history – literally. We also joined forces with the International Space Science Institute Beijing, a partnership that has proven successful over the past few years.

We’ve been able to fill a niche in Beijing’s science-literate community, offering food for thought (as well as nourishment and drinks!) to a discerning audience. Drawing on our network of international scientists, we’ve hosted a wide variety of events, from the science of beer brewing to the multi-faceted eyes of butterflies, exploring the depths of the universe as well as the intricacies of the human mind and the ethics surrounding medical procedures.

Understanding Science Beijing has become a fixture on the monthly calendar, proudly supported by the Institute of Physics and its sister organisations, support for which all involved are immensely grateful.

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Richard de Grijs

Richard de Grijs

Richard is a professor of astrophysics at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Peking University, and represents the IOP in China.
Richard de Grijs

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