China reached new heights in science this year, climbing to 11th place on the Global Innovation Index and leading the world in the number of most-cited papers.
Chinese scientists have made leaps, from space to the deep sea to quantum and supercomputing. Before the year ends, we look back on significant scientific developments in China over the past 12 months.
Sea and space exploration
In November, researchers from China and New Zealand made an epic voyage to the Kermadec Trench, one of the deepest places on Earth, aboard a Chinese-made submersible. The team saw strange and rarely seen sea creatures, including a red angler fish that swam upside down.
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China, after Russia and the United States, became the third country to put astronauts into space and build a space station.
The last mission, Shenzhou-15, was sent to wrap up the final stage of the Tiangong’s construction and launch the first stage of its application and development. The previous crew oversaw the addition of two laboratory modules, Wentian and Mengtian, to the main Tianhe living space.
But the space missions came with hiccups. In May, the Chinese satellite launch centre preparing to launch the Shenzhou-14 probe said they had detected a jamming device that could interfere with navigation systems in a car outside the base – the first time it had reported such an incident.
The jammer was capable of causing a rocket to go off course, but the space centre did not say whether it was a sabotage attempt or an accident.
In September, China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission won a top international aerospace award from the International Astronautical Federation for the scientific data it acquired that contributed to a deeper understanding of Mars and the solar system.
Tianwen-1, for the first time in history, achieved orbiting, landing and roving on Mars in one mission. China’s space agency announced in June that the orbiter had collected data from the entire surface of Mars, marking the official completion of the country’s first Mars mission.
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Closer to Earth, thanks to the Chang’e lunar mission, scientists have found the first on-site evidence of water on the moon’s surface, discovered a new mineral on the moon and studied the youngest rocks ever brought back from the moon. These discoveries deepened mankind’s knowledge of the moon and the solar system.
To enhance lunar exploration, the country has built a research facility that simulates the moon’s low-gravity environment to test equipment – and potentially prevent costly miscalculations.
Supercomputing: faster but not global
In June, Chinese scientists said their Newest Generation Sunway supercomputer was so fast it had successfully run an artificial intelligence model as sophisticated as the human brain.
The achievement puts the Chinese machine on par with Frontier, the latest machine built by the US Department of Energy, which was named the world’s most powerful in the Top500 list.
However, Chinese developers of the new systems have not officially submitted details to the organisers of the world’s 500 fastest computers list, who said the absence of new Chinese supercomputers on the list was a major gap in the rankings.
Physics: achievements in fusion and quantum
China is ready to mass produce a key component for an international mega-project aimed at creating energy through fusion – a potentially unlimited source of future energy.
Scientists said they had successfully built and tested the first panel of a component that could endure super hot gas up to 150 million degrees Celsius (270 million Fahrenheit) inside the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest fusion reactor.
Chinese scientists have also reached a milestone in ultracold chemistry, a field in which atoms and molecules are cooled to extremely low temperatures to observe how they behave in slow motion, as well as how chemical reactions occur at the quantum level.
A team from the University of Science and Technology of China, which has been included in Physics World’s top 10 achievements of 2022, confirmed a breakthrough expected to shed new light on how chemicals behave at the quantum level.
In their most recent study, the researchers produced around 4,000 gas molecules at 100 nanokelvins – less than one millionth of a degree above absolute zero.
In quantum computing, leading scientist Pan Jianwei said he and his team aimed to develop general-purpose quantum computers as early as a decade from now.
In August, Chinese tech giant Baidu launched a self-developed quantum computer in Beijing, with a system enabling everyone to gain access to it with any device, including a smartphone.
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Quantum researchers have also been working to extend the time that quantum bits can represent both zero and one at the same time, creating building blocks for qubits that are more resistant to environmental noise than standard qubits, and lengthening the distance of quantum-based secure direct communication technology.
Chinese scientists come home from US
At least 1,400 US-based ethnic Chinese scientists switched their affiliation in 2021 from American to Chinese institutions, according to a report.
It came after the China Initiative was launched in 2018 by the administration of former US president Donald Trump. It aimed to fight suspected Chinese theft of technical secrets and intellectual property as competition between the two countries intensified.
While the administration of US President Joe Biden formally ended the programme this year amid concerns over racial bias and a culture of fear, it still exacted a lingering toll on scientists of Chinese descent, according to the report.
Life scientist Yan Ning, for example, made headlines in China when she gave up a permanent post at Princeton University. After five years in the US, the structural biologist returns to China to establish and serve as dean of the Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research and Translation.
World-renowned Chinese mathematician Yau Shing-Tung also announced his retirement from Harvard University to teach full-time at Tsinghua University in Beijing, aiming to help China become a mathematics powerhouse within a decade.
Meanwhile, Chinese-born artificial intelligence expert Ma Yi has said he would take unpaid leave from the University of California, Berkeley, next year to serve as the director of a new institute of data science at the University of Hong Kong. Unlike Yan, Ma is expected to take a one-year sabbatical, a common practice in US academia, to lead the institute.
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