Serving science and China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am


This month, scientists at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global governing body for nuclear energy, finished compiling a 12-point action plan for how to prevent future leaks from nuclear power plants in post-earthquake Japan.

For the IAEA, there is no question today that nuclear energy can be harnessed; it just has to be done with far more caution. But more than half a century ago, when phrases such as 'international atomic security' were being newly coined in the wake of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, six international scientists - among them J.Robert Oppenheimer, who led the US team that created the atomic bomb - had the responsibility of determining whether nuclear energy could be used for peaceful purposes.

For three years, as part of the newly formed United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, they researched and debated: could the immense power of the atom be controlled by man?

Their verdict: yes, nuclear power was technologically manageable. But it was up to the world's governments to figure out the politics of using this energy for humanity.

The man chosen to present these findings to the United Nations Security Council, which eventually led to the creation of the IAEA, was a Chinese scientist - in fact, China's first nuclear physicist with a graduate degree, Dr Wei Hsioh Ren.

This year, his eldest daughter, Dr Betty Wei, a historian living in Hong Kong, completed a memoir on her father to be published in English and Chinese. Her research took 20 years; though her father was instrumental in the creation of a major international nuclear organisation and was a prominent Chinese scientist and educator of his age, his name is not known to many in this generation.

Wei brought the nation modern science by stepping beyond the boundaries of his time. (Indeed, he might not have been a scientist at all.)

Wei, the first son of a long line of silk weavers in turn-of-the-century Nanjing , could have become a silk weaver himself. But after his father's death in 1902, when Wei was only three and just beginning his traditional Chinese education, Wei's uncle, who had become a Christian, sent him to missionary school instead. He emerged educated in maths and science instead of solely Chinese classics, and was so fluent in English that he led his debating team at Nanking University to victory in English tournaments three years in a row.

All this, along with his naturally wavy hair and 1.8 metre frame, made him seem a modernist through and through. But, like other educated Chinese of his generation, he knew he bore a responsibility to help his country grow stronger.

In 1928, Wei, then 29 and studying light and optics on an atomic level, had just been awarded a doctorate in physics by the University of Chicago, at the time the world's leading institution for nuclear research.

One of his professors, Arthur Holly Compton, who a year earlier won a Nobel Prize for his work on X-rays, asked him to stay on in research at Chicago. But Wei chose to give up pure research and instead went back to Nanjing to be a physics professor and then dean of Nanking University's new college of science.

In 1945, after years of teaching, he was appointed by the Chinese government to represent China on the UN Atomic Energy Commission as scientific adviser. He was no longer China's only atomic scientist, and hadn't touched his graduate nuclear work in years, but his English was so superb that he was chosen in order 'not to lose China's face' in the upcoming international negotiations.

For the next nine years, he discussed with world experts the international control of atomic energy; he wrote in UN documents and spoke on atomic radiation and disarmament; and he represented China at international conferences.

If nuclear theory and policy were his only contribution, modern China would not have as much to attribute to Wei beyond his diplomatic skills, especially since he represented the Nationalist government. But it is his other, lesser-known scientific accomplishments on Chinese soil that even the mainland cannot ignore.

When his students in China could not easily access scientific journals and articles from abroad, which took much time and manpower to ship, he ordered smaller microfilms and designed and patented his own mini- microfilm reader and copier to distribute amongst students.

During the years of Japanese occupation, he lent his knowledge of physics to the building of a hydroelectric power plant in Sichuan province as well as electricity and telephone plants in Yunnan .

In the early 1930s, Wei combined his physics background with maths and astronomy to make motion pictures (at the time, film was technically difficult, so having a science background helped), leading the team that won China's first international film award at a Brussels film festival in 1936 for Farmers in Springtime.

That same year, he travelled to Hokkaido, Japan, to film a total solar eclipse on Kodachrome. The equipment they were carrying would not have been sufficient for the project, so Wei used his knowledge of optics to redesign a lens that would reach the distance to the eclipse. His colleague, Sun Mingjing (who later taught Zhang Yimou at the Beijing Film Academy), ground the glass. The result was the world's first film of a complete solar eclipse.

Before that event, they were already the first to make documentary films in China. They wished to use film to bridge the gap between what the elite and the common people knew.

It was through film's images, subtitles, and narration that they taught the illiterate masses about wool, oil, eye health, waterworks in Sichuan, and of course, the eclipse.

Wei's early film and humanitarian work cannot be separated from his later work in deciding how to control nuclear energy. To Wei, research and knowledge was tantamount to understanding the way the world worked, but it had to go hand in hand with tangible human development.

He worked in a time when China did not have the resources for science. Then, when science was this new, even ostensibly imperialist subject in China, it seemed to be more theoretical than useful. But to Wei, science could not be separated from practicality; it was not a field of its own. It was connected to everything.

In today's China, funding for science and technology have risen dramatically. By its own account, the research and development budget of the China Academy of Sciences was 20 billion yuan (HK$24.5 billion) in 2009, seven times greater than in 1998. Young scientists often feel pressure as China pushes its researchers to make ever more discoveries and developments.

If he were alive today, Wei might be excited and proud of his country as it rushes headlong towards modernity, but also cautious.

He might remind the young people of China, as he told his daughter Betty on the day she graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science: 'As scientists, my colleagues and I are responsible for understanding the atom; it is you, the social scientists, who must decide on how to use it to serve humanity.'

But Wei took it upon himself to do the serving as well. He could have stayed on in pure research in Chicago; he had the potential to have become a great theoretical scientist. Dr Charles Kao, sometimes dubbed the father of fibre optics who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2009, told Betty Wei that her father's long-ago thesis on optics at Chicago helped form the basis for his own seminal work. Wei perhaps could have received such fame himself.

Instead, Wei channelled his great scientific talent into world-class science education for college students in Nanjing, small-scale projects for clean water and electricity generation in rural China, and documentary film for common folk because, according to his daughter, he thought it was his duty not to use his own talents for personal glory but to help his nation modernise.


The number of Nobel laureates for physics or chemistry from the University of Chicago, Wen Hsioh Ren's alma mater