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China Built the World's Largest Telescope, But Has No One To Run It (arstechnica.com) 122

An anonymous reader shares a report: China has built a staggeringly large instrument in the remote southern, mountainous region of the country called the Five hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST. The telescope measures nearly twice as large as the closest comparable facility in the world, the US-operated Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. According to the South China Morning Post, the country is looking for a foreigner to run the observatory because no Chinese astronomer has the experience of running a facility of such size and complexity. The Chinese Academy of Sciences began advertising the position in western journals and job postings in May, but so far there have been no qualified applicants. One reason is that the requirements are fairly strict: The candidate must have at least 20 years of previous experience in the field, and he or she must have taken a leading role in large-scale radio telescope project with extensive managerial experience. The candidate must also hold a professorship, or equally senior position, in a world-class research institute or university. Nick Suntzeff, an astronomer at Texas A&M University who helped lead the discovery of dark energy and is involved with construction of the optical Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, said there are probably about 40 or so astronomers in the world who would qualify for such a job. Compared to other astronomy disciplines, radio astronomy is a relatively small field. "I am sure they will find someone," he said. "But most astronomers in the United States do not like to work abroad. It was hard to get people to apply to work in La Serena, something I could never understand, considering how beautiful it is and how nice the Chilean people are." Among the western community of astronomers there are also questions about the scientific purpose of the FAST telescope. As part of a recent National Science Foundation review of its facilities, US officials placed the similar Arecibo radio telescope near the bottom of its priorities list.
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China Built the World's Largest Telescope, But Has No One To Run It

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  • Wrong phrasing (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Astronomers love to work abroad. See the recent observation campaign for the MU69 flyby which took them to the backcountry of Argentina and South Africa if you need any evidence that they're willing to go out to the middle of nowhere.

    The problem is living somewhere remote or hazardous. Nobody but hermits and crazy people want to live near the observatories in South America. China is one of the biggest "political risk" places on Earth.

    • "Work abroad" for a short-term project =/= "Living in a remote mountainous area of China", where you're behind the "Great Firewall". Even if I had the requisite qualifications, I'd be hesitant to go to live in the "Hermit Kingdom" and run the risk of disappearing for some politically incorrect statement.

  • Experience Counts (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Herkum01 ( 592704 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @10:49AM (#54956249)

    I believe the issue with the large amount of experience is understanding all the tasks that need to get down from a maintenance perspective.

    For comparison, how comfortable would you feel flying on a new plane and the person whom you hired to maintain it is a auto-mechanic. Where to look and what to look for before things become a problem comes only with experience. If the Chinese built something this big, I believe that they don't want to hire some guy to learn on the job, and fix stuff after it gets screwed up.

    They should have been apprenticing someone to learn how to take on this task while they were still constructing it, but apprenticeships seem like a dirty word in today's world.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Unlike the movies, director jobs for day to day business have little to do with construction. It's not clear to me how an apprenticeship would do any good here.

      For your analogy, a pilot might learn some interesting things watching a 777 being built, but isn't going to learn anything about dealing with air traffic control, the setup of different airports, dealing with the crew, ....

    • Hundreds of people aren't going to die and the equipment isn't going to be completely destroyed if you make a dumb mistake while managing a radio telescope facility.

    • Managing a large facility like this is not a job in which the person at the top makes the decisions about details. They have to be on top of the big picture. I am an engineer who works on radio telescopes, so I am familiar with the sort of issues that come up. The biggest issue by far is making sure that your facility has funding to carry out its mission. Next is finding people who can handle all the details. Then making sure that useful science is being carried out, so that the funding will stay in place a
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The full name of the thing is "Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope", and despite being round, it's not even close to being "spherical".

    I'm pretty sure they just slapped "Spherical" in there so that the acronym didn't spell FART.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They use spherical because the collector is spherical. For most telescopes, the collector is parabolic.

      Five-hundred-meter Aperture Parabolic - FAP

  • "I have the best radio gastronomy skills, believe me! I know more about the stars than Hollywood boulevard and Grassy Tyson combined. When you know stars, they let you grab uranuses, and I've grabbed some yuuuuge uranuses, let me tell ya. It's fake news they were neptunes. Neptune grabbing is for total looosers and I will ban neptune grabbers from serving in the military! We must have quality troops to successfully invade Australia, Germany, and Mar-a-Lago competitors. Make Astrology Great Again!"

  • Once you are there how likely is it that the government would let you leave?

  • OK, now what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Brett Buck ( 811747 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @11:14AM (#54956409)

    Did it somehow come as a surprise to them that they built this telescope? Wouldn't you think it would have occurred to someone along the way that at some point they needed to turn it on and operate it, and plan accordingly? In fact, the obvious place to look would be the scientists and engineers who developed the design and specified the requirements for the thing in the first place.

        Something doesn't smell quite right about this story - either it's wrong/misleading, or it's a ChiCom vanity project that was unplanned from science perspective.

      "Build it and they will come" might be an OK premise for a movie but it makes *no* sense for a multi-billion-yuan science project. I have to believe there is something else to this story than is being described, because it's too crazy/irresponsible to be what it seems.

    • Re:OK, now what? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve ( 949321 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @12:41PM (#54957041)

      "Build it and they will come" might be an OK premise for a movie but it makes *no* sense for a multi-billion-yuan science project. I have to believe there is something else to this story than is being described, because it's too crazy/irresponsible to be what it seems.

      I agree that skepticism is probably merited here, but I can also tell you that if somebody or multiple somebodies high up enough in the Chinese Communist Party wanted it done for prestige reasons (ie. "We have a big telescope too!"), nobody would dare raise these questions until it got done. Remember, this the country that has built cities that almost nobody has ever moved into and shopping malls that have no customers or stores in them.

      • The same can be said of this [wikipedia.org] and this [wikipedia.org] and this [wikipedia.org] American projects.

        I don't see any big problem there. I only see positive sign that China wants to recruit top-notch scientists to manage top-notch science projects regardless of one's nationality. I would be surprise if the US is this open.

        And I also see their leadership want to advance China as a leader in scientific discovery, instead of going back to coal and blue-collar laboring. While the West continues to be skeptical and dismissive and eventually will be

      • but I can also tell you that if somebody or multiple somebodies high up enough in the Chinese Communist Party wanted it done for prestige reasons (ie. "We have a big telescope too!"), nobody would dare raise these questions until it got done. Remember, this the country that has built cities that almost nobody has ever moved into and shopping malls that have no customers or stores in them.

        Certainly, that's the other possibility - a vanity project like the Concorde.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Reminds me of the U of I "Laser Building" [nytimes.com].

      Branstad pushed for it at the time because Iowa State University got their Molecular Biology building funded, so U of I had to have something too. I learned early in life how much to trust politicians. This Freedman guy - he ran because he knew his call was coming due.

    • You forget it is China.
      Half planned economy.
      Half capitalism.
      They planned for buildin the telescope, but relied on the 'free market' to have workers for it.
      Which would perhaps work if they had not ridiculous requirements like 20 years experience.

    • I have to wonder about the practical utility of this telescope. If they don't have someone in-country with enough experience to run the facility, how could they design it and be sure they avoided the technical problems associated with a large telescope sited on earth?

    • Something doesn't smell quite right about this story - either it's wrong/misleading, or it's a ChiCom vanity project that was unplanned from science perspective.

      Nowhere did I see that they said they weren't running the telescope. What I got from reading the article is the Chinese built this giant state of the art telescope and now want a prestigious celebrity scientist to head the project and will keep that position open till they get one. I doubt that head of project is really needed for anything but to put their name on the papers that are being written about the telescope and the for publication in astronomy journals.

  • They have people and would probably be thrilled at the free access this would give them.
    • The SETI project is entirely one of data analysis, not management of data collection. It's highly unlikely anyone on the SETI project has experience managing such a facility.

  • by Spy Handler ( 822350 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @12:31PM (#54956951) Homepage Journal

    Among the western community of astronomers there are also questions about the scientific purpose of the FAST telescope.

    I recall reading something about giant skyscrapers and economic bubbles. The construction of the world's tallest building is usually followed by an economic bubble bursting.

    The argument I believe was, very tall skyscrapers are actually not economically efficient, because more and more internal space needs to be taken up with elevators. Also at some point the added cost of building higher and higher becomes greater than the cost of simply buying another lot and making another building there. Therefore whenever you see a new #1 tallest building in the world going up, that's a sign of economic excess and status-seeking ego, rather than an efficient allocation of capital.

    Anyways it makes me wonder if this #1 gigantic radio telescope (which western scientists say is not even that useful) is another sign of China's economic bubble about to burst.

    • by slew ( 2918 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @01:33PM (#54957401)

      Anyways it makes me wonder if this #1 gigantic radio telescope (which western scientists say is not even that useful) is another sign of China's economic bubble about to burst.

      As a result of the decades long one-child policy, China has an excess of unmarried young males (with limited familial prospects). Gotta keep them busy. Having the government favoring making skyscrapers and radio-telescopes seems like a good way to keep people busy and out of trouble...

      People said the same stuff about the International Space Station which was basically conceived to keep a bunch of Russian scientists who knew have to make rockets busy and out of trouble after an economic collapse. I'm not sure how much useful science has been accomplished by the ISS, but it's certainly kept some key Roscosmos/Energia people busy and out of some trouble...

  • Maybe if their job description included "free speech and uncensored internet for telescope workers and their associates" they'd see more applicants.

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