China Builds World's Largest Radio Telescope But Can't Find Anyone To Run It

[DIGEST: South China Morning Post, Ars Technica, Global Times, Science Magazine, The Guardian]

Last year China completed construction of the largest radio telescope in the world with the intention of studying the cosmos. Yet, nearly a year later, they have found no one to run it.

According to Hong Kong based news source South China Morning Post (SCMP), the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) has sat idle for months in the remote mountains of Guizhou province as China searches overseas for a foreign astronomer to run the facility. Despite a $1.2 million paycheck and other aggressive financial incentives, no one has yet to accept the position.

Wang Tinggui, professor of astrophysics at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, says: “FAST is a portal to new discoveries. For an astronomer, running FAST could be the opportunity of a lifetime.” Unfortunately, eligible scientists do not appear to agree.

Great Expectations Limit Number of Qualifying Candidates

Perhaps the vacancy remains because the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who own the telescope, do not believe that any mainland Chinese astronomer has the required experience to manage the “scale and complexity” of such a large facility, according to a human resources official involved in the hiring process. “The post is currently open to scientists working outside China only. Candidates can be of any nationality, any race.”

A lack of faith in their own scientists aside, a look at some of the other job qualifications would suggest that the candidate pool is likely far more limited than the academy has anticipated.

  • 20 years of previous experience
  • Extensive management experience
  • A professor at a world-leading research institute or university
  • Previous leadership role of a large-scale radio telescope project

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff says this restricts the list of qualifying scientists to around 40 in the whole world, but those few still might not want the job because of other drawbacks and inconveniences: “The money does not buy you telescope time, or access to supercomputers, or fun postdocs and graduate students.” Foreign astronomers could also struggle with language barriers and cultural differences, and experience discomfort living in the one of China’s least developed areas.

Chinese Owners of Telescope Deny Reports of Vacancy

On its social media blog, the CAS denied that China seeks to hire a foreign astronomer, discrediting the previous report from SCMP. To the contrary, the CAS claims that no such external recruitment exists and that the post of FAST chief scientist has been filled since the telescope’s launch back in July 2016. It did not identify the chief scientist in its blog post.

The SCMP report alluded to this alternative narrative, stating that several scientists at the facility declined to comment out of concern that doing so could lead to political trouble. One unnamed scientist did say that the decision to hire from overseas came from the top.

The original SCMP report was rehashed on other news sources, including Newsweek. Then Chinese news source Cankaoxiaoxi translated Newsweek’s posting for its own website and was later cited by other websites. But since then, Cankaoxiaoxi has taken down the posting.

Shooting for the Stars and Falling Short

The CAS has been misleading with other information as well. At an advertised 500 meters in diameter, FAST measures nearly twice as large as the 300-meter US-owned Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Yet FAST’s effective size is only about 400 meters. The larger size required the Chinese government to displace, compensate and relocate up to 9,000 of its own citizens from their rural homes and communities.

The scientific purpose of the new telescope comes into question as well. The Arecibo radio telescope finds itself at the bottom of the National Science Foundation’s priority list, because the search for alien life might not be enough reason to justify the $8 million annual operating budget. Not only does this mean that the Arecibo telescope is in danger of shutting down, but it also reflects that listening to radio signals from the stars has become a low priority overall, causing FAST to lose significance in the global science community.

In addition, while Arecibo is capable of transmitting as well as receiving radio waves, FAST is passive in design and can only receive signals. This makes FAST useless in identifying such treats as near-Earth asteroids, and in the case that alien life does make contact, FAST won’t be able to say hello back.

China’s telescope woes don’t end there. Chinese astronomers and CAS are experiencing difficulty agreeing on the ambitious plans for yet another telescope - this one an optical telescope that is also intended to be the largest of its kind in the world. Unfortunately, its current plans for the unnamed telescope would be dwarfed in half before it even starts by the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, scheduled to finish construction as early as 2022.

So in China’s race to be the biggest and best, was it worth displacing its own people to build a half-functioning telescope in the search for aliens? Why all the expense, if there are no practical benefits?

Luis C. Ho, director of the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University suggests it is less about science and more about status.

“Astronomy is an ultimate expression of ‘pure’ science that has little immediate practical benefits. It is a luxury that only the most advanced economies enjoy.”

For more information on China’s new telescope: Second Nexus

Erik Voake/Getty Images for Hulu via Getty Images // Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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