The rising number of large equipment for astronomical observation and research and international projects where China is playing a leading role are expected to help more Chinese students join this field, according to experts. Such large equipment and projects have given many students an opportunity to experience the implementation of scientific agendas and perform device maintenance and computational operations, activities that were rare in China until a few years ago.
Xue Xun, a professor from the School of Physics and Materials Science at East China Normal University, cites the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, as an example, in an interview with China Daily.
Xue Xun from the School of Physics and Materials Science at East China Normal University talks in a physics class.
The world's largest telescope located in Southwest China's Guizhou province began operation in 2016.
Such large world-class scientific equipment allows young students to be involved in execution, information gathering and calculation on the front line together with top scientists, Xue says.
FAST has discovered dozens of pulsars since its operation, and the discovery of the first pulsar by British scientists in the 1960s was a breakthrough that led to the winning of a Nobel Prize, says Xue.
China also has other large equipment and projects such as the Tianqin program, a space-based gravitational wave detection system scheduled to be completed by 2035; Taiji research project, which will study gravitational waves from the merging of binary black holes and other celestial bodies; and Ali, a ground-based project in the Tibet autonomous region that aims to detect the first tremors of the Big Bang.
More astronomical telescopes of various types will be launched in the next few years, Xue says. Astronomy has flourished over the years. The need for professional talent is indeed rising.
Scholars also point out that breakthroughs in astronomy, such as China's dark matter particle explorer Wukong, or Monkey King, which was put into operation in 2016, and the detection of gravitational waves from black hole mergers or collisions by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, in the United States that same year, have attracted more people from the younger generations to pursue knowledge in this area.
The first (direct) image of a black hole was published on April 10, and thanks to the prevalence of new media, such as WeChat in China, it triggered widespread discussions on astronomy among people of all age groups, says Wu Qingwen, a professor from the School of Physics at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan city, Hubei province.
I am sure it will help draw more young people to develop an interest and even choose this area as their profession in the future.
Wu notes that 10 years ago, only four universities in China - Nanjing University, University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui's provincial capital Hefei, Peking University and Beijing Normal University - had astronomy departments.
In March, Tsinghua University in Beijing became the latest in the country to have a department of astronomy, following in the footsteps of 10 other institutions of higher education, including Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Xiamen University, Guangzhou city-based Sun Yat-sen University, Yunnan University and Guizhou University.
These departments focus mostly on black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the origins of the universe, and celestial bodies and life.
First-rate universities must target the most cutting-edge scientific issues, Wu says.
In the short run, the basic disciplines may not be enough to promote economic development, but in the long term, they are decisive factors for future developments and continuous breakthroughs.
Students today also stand to benefit from the wealth of opportunities created by China's leading role in international collaborations. Nearly all international projects were led by foreign countries until 20 years ago. Before that, Chinese students could only get involved in such projects by studying abroad.
Students at a primary school in Zhuji city, Zhejiang province, learn about black holes guided by a science teacher after the first direct photo of a black hole was released across the globe in April.
According to scholars, China has over the past decade initiated several influential projects involving international collaboration with world-class scientific goals and equipment, offering students opportunities to participate in international exchange and cooperation.
Meanwhile, the country has also participated in major international projects, and this has provided students with access to cutting-edge resources and techniques. For example, in March, China became one of the seven countries that make up the Square Kilometre Array, a planet-scale array of radio telescopes that is 100 times more sensitive than the largest radio telescope in the world.
China's involvement in such historical international collaborations will open a new chapter in our understanding of the universe and lead the development of radio astronomy in the coming decade that will contribute to the country's grooming of first-class talent in this field, Wu says.