【明報專訊】THANKS to a collaboration among scientists from a number of countries, the first ever image of a black hole has been released, signifying a major breakthrough in astronomical observation. Scientific researchers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait have contributed to this study in which the veil of mystery on black holes has been lifted. Shanghai and Taipei are among the seven cities around the world in which the result of the observation was relayed simultaneously. Astronomy is a typical fundamental science. Its contribution to economic productivity and construction is not obvious, but it reflects a country's level of scientific research and soft power. Over the last decade, China has been playing catch-up in fundamental sciences, such as astronomy and physics, and its effort has begun to bear fruit. However, if China is to keep pace with top scientific research institutions in Europe and the US, it will have to devote more human and physical resources and promote transnational collaboration actively in scientific research projects.
For many people, astronomy is rather "impractical" as a field of scientific research. While it requires huge investment, it does not have much practical value. However, one must not ignore the fact that the level of development a country has achieved in astronomical science enhances its soft power. The international space collaboration project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US is in itself a very important foreign policy tool that projects the soft power and positive image of the US around the world.
In recent years, mainland astronomers have published many important research findings in authoritative science journals such as Nature. This shows that China's overall level of astronomical observation has been improving gradually. However, astronomy is also developing rapidly at international level. Many international large-scale astronomical observation and measurement projects, such as the recent research on black holes, are still dominated by Europe and the US. Chen Jiansheng, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a mainland astronomist, pointed out a decade ago that it was not easy for astronomy in China to catch up with international levels. It was not only about how many resources to put in, but also about the state of international collaboration. Top research projects concerning fundamental sciences nowadays often require collaboration among a number of countries because of the immensity of the projects and the huge amount of resources required. However, in international collaborative projects dominated by Europe and the US, it is difficult for China to assume a core position. It is also rare for international scientific research institutions to take part directly in large-scale astronomical observation projects dominated by China. Naturally, it is rather hard for China to compete with Europe and the US relying only on its national power as a developing country.
Over the past decade, China has put in much effort to internationalise the development of its research on fundamental sciences by seeking to work more with other countries. One example is the East Asia VLBI Network, a collaboration among China, Japan and South Korea. However, there has not been any fundamental change to the difficult situation concerning the state of global collaboration mentioned by Chen back then. In recent years, to put itself on a par with Europe and the US, China has considered spending hundreds of billions of yuan to build its own large hadron collider. There have been disputes concerning its cost-effectiveness. What it reflects is exactly such a problem. While the pursuit of grandeur and unrealistic achievements has no place in the development of basic scientific research, such development does require an additional input of human and physical resources. If China wants to become an advanced technological power, its strategy must be well-measured.
play catch-up : to make an effort to keep up with or equal an opponent, competitor, or rival when in a losing position or having fallen behind
project : to display or present
immensity : the large size of sth