Modern models of sci-tech self-improvement in China

If there is a single theme throughout the history of science and technology in China, it is self-improvement.

If there is a single theme throughout the history of science and technology in China, it is self-improvement.

An ancient Chinese saying from "Zhou Yi," or "The Book of Changes," written over 2,000 years ago, goes: One should never stop striving for self-improvement and hold the world with virtue.

Chinese scientists Gu Songfen and Wang Dazhong, who won China's top science award this year, are modern models of the self-taught man.

Born in 1930, Gu is an aircraft designer at the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, Ltd., the country's leading aircraft maker. At the age of 21, he joined China's aviation industry when it was in its infancy.

In 1956, China's first aircraft design office was established in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, and its first task was to develop the country's first homegrown jet aircraft. Gu was appointed head of the aerodynamics team.

Aerodynamics is the "soul" of aircraft design. The study of the way objects move through the air ensures an aircraft can fly efficiently and carry weapons as well as guaranteeing the stable and safe operation of the engine.

However, in the 1950s, China had no aviation experience, equipment or wind tunnels. Gu decided to teach himself.

After finding foreign texts at the library at Beihang University in Beijing, Gu headed to the capital, borrowed a bike and visited the library every day.

He read a range of books and transcribed all the information he could get his hands on.

Based on that information, Gu came up with an aerodynamic design system and on July 26, 1958, after two years of development, his team celebrated the maiden flight of China's first training jet.

Gu went on to work on the development of the J-8, the country's first supersonic jet fighter, which made its first test flight in 1969 but encountered serious vibration problems during subsequent flights.

To identify the cause of the vibrations, Gu volunteered to observe the aircraft in flight himself.

"We didn't have a camera, so it could only be done by a person," he said. He glued skeins of knitting wool to the J-8's rear fuselage and tail wing to observe their flow during flight.

To get a clear view of the way the wool was disturbed, he required two planes to fly just five meters apart, a great risk for him and his pilot. After several flights, he finally found and fixed the problem.

In 1980, he was in charge of the design of J-8-II, which was required to perform at a much higher level than previous aircraft. In four years, Gu's team achieved the maiden flight of the J-8-II, laying the cornerstone for China's supersonic aircraft design.

Gu's endless curiosity drove his spirit of lifelong learning. He continued his scientific inquiries, translated foreign books, talked with young scholars, and even learned Russian, Japanese and German late in life.

Like Gu, Wang Dazhong's life also reflects a belief in self-improvement. Born in 1935, Wang has dedicated himself to the research and development of advanced nuclear energy technologies.

An internationally reputed nuclear scientist, Wang is former president of China's top-ranking Tsinghua University, which also has self-improvement as its motto.

Over the past six decades, Wang has led his team in blazing a trail, turning China from a latecomer to a leader in advanced nuclear energy technologies.

Wang and his colleagues built from scratch China's first self-developed shielded test reactor at a mountain village in the outskirts of Beijing.

The average age of the design group was under 23, and no one had studied abroad or seen a real nuclear reactor. They started by building engineering models and made designs and calculations with hand-cranked machines.

China's first self-developed nuclear reactor was completed in 1964 after six years of development.

After Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986, Wang set his eyes on inherent safety and concentrated research into a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR). Although the development of nuclear energy was at a low ebb globally, Wang's resolution to continue in the field was unshaken.

In 1986, Wang and his team again started from scratch to develop a 10MW HTGR and it reached full-power operation in 2003. Its completion ushered in a new generation of nuclear energy systems that effectively eliminate the possibility of reactor core meltdown.

From there, Wang and his team spent years promoting the transition from experimental reactors to industrial-scale prototype reactors. Their achievements helped China independently master modular HTGR technology, and create a comprehensive development chain, from basic scientific research to commercial manufacture.

Likening scientific research to climbing mountains, Wang said the road to success is full of difficulties and risks and requires the ability to analyze problems, the courage to explore uncharted territory, and resilience in the face of failure.

The lives of these two scientists illustrate the ancient saying and echo the call by Chinese leaders to uphold the central role of innovation in China's modernization drive and to be self-reliant in science and technology as a strategic underpinning for national development.

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