Zhang Tongjie, 52, is a Chinese researcher who could play a crucial role in a field that was previously unthinkable in the celestial empire: the search for extraterrestrial life.
For the past six years, the academician has worked tirelessly to make China a leading player in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. And now he believes he is on the eve of a triumph.
Scientists have been looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life for decades. While these efforts have so far proved unsuccessful, they have not deterred researchers. Because? Simple.
Because it is highly unlikely that we are alone in a universe that is home to more than 100 billion galaxies.
SETI research in China
In China, SETI research is just starting to gain popularity. Yet Zhang, a professor of cosmology at Beijing Normal University, is already convinced that his country will, if so, be the first to detect signals from other worlds.
"We'll probably find it sooner than the others," he says. "They (the West) have more experience, but our telescope can detect things theirs can't."
A great eye on the sky
Zhang is right for SETI, China's ace in the hole the Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) from five hundred meters. A giant observatory built on top of a mountain in the southwestern province of Guizhou in 2016. The facility is the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world. about 2,5 times more powerful than any previous tool of its kind.
Many see FAST as a game changer for SETI, as it may be able to pick up signals from space lost during previous observations.
Zhang has been lobbying Chinese authorities for more telescope access for years: in August, these efforts finally paid off
The National Astronomical Observatories have granted Zhang 17,5 hours of observations with the FAST (distributed) over several months. For weeks, he has worked extensively with his team to create a list of solar systems that he thinks are most likely to host intelligent beings.
Observations (China's first SETI project) started on Saturday.
Chinese SETI: the coming months
Over the next few months, the telescope will direct its giant antenna to dozens of galactic coordinates provided by Zhang, listening for any unusual radio activity.
The stakes are high: If Zhang makes a groundbreaking discovery, he hopes to get the official support he needs to grow China's SETI community. But if it fails, it may be even more difficult to observe the sky in the future.
Though the odds of making history are slim, Zhang insists his team has a better chance than any other before them.
“Maybe it's not powerful enough yet, but FAST is the best SETI tool we have in the world,” he says.
"Alien" hunter by chance
Born in a rural region of the eastern province of Shandong in 1968, for Zhang, stargazing was not a childhood passion.
His interest in science developed after the Cultural Revolution in the late 70s, when Chinese leaders launched a campaign to modernize the country. He initially hoped to become a mathematician, but failing to win a place in a college math program, he turned to physics.
In 1993, Zhang earned a bachelor's degree in cosmology, and has advanced his academic career over the past 20 years. The thought of spending time with SETI looking for extraterrestrials had barely crossed his mind.
"I was just as curious about aliens as normal people are," he says. "I never thought I'd do it alone."
A research trip to the USA in 2014 changed everything.
Zhang has spent several days at the University of California, Berkeley, a school famous for its SETI research program since the late 70s. The university developed SETI data collection tools which are now installed on many of the world's leading radio telescopes, including the FAST.
“When I was in Berkeley, I saw with my own eyes that they were developing real tools and writing programs for SETI. It wasn't just a weird idea. This convinced me, ”recalls Zhang.
Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at the SETI research center in Berkeley, met Zhang during his trip. Remember that the Chinese professor got excited as he introduced his team's work, especially when the conversation turned to FAST, which was then under construction.
“We are interested in this question of 'are we alone?' For thousands of years, ”says Werthimer. “So, there is this telescope that might answer the question. How can you resist? "
The couple have been working together ever since. Berkeley focuses on developing tools for SETI data collection, while Zhang works with FAST (which does not yet open to projects led by international researchers) and analyzes the collected data.
The first Chinese SETI astronomer in history
Zhang's love for SETI was a bold move, says Werthimer. Most modern SETI research is based on radio astronomy theories, a field in which the Chinese professor had no experience. Yet he decided to jump regardless.
“Most people don't do this at their age,” says Werthimer. “I haven't changed sides in my career. It's a pretty bold and interesting thing to do. "
In fact, the decision was even braver than the American thinks. Before Zhang, no Chinese astronomers had attempted SETI research, and the field was often dismissed as pure science fiction.
SETI's reputation had been tarnished by its association with wild theories of ufology, which took off in China after the country began opening up to the West in the late 70s. A group of UFO enthusiasts founded the China UFO Research Association in 1979 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, recruiting thousands of members.
Two years later, the group began publishing a journal (The Journal of UFO Research) which later claimed to be "the most popular SETI journal in Asia".
Over the next few decades, the magazine was filled with speculation about the Bermuda Triangle, and letters from people describing encounters with alien spaceships.
Zhang distances himself from the publication. “Nothing is proven,” he says. "It's not science and I don't want to be associated with it."
In China, SETI struggles to gain support and recognition
Even decision makers who see it as a serious science are often reluctant to provide funding: China is eager to establish a reputation as a world leader in science, but SETI research may not produce concrete results for years. Or maybe never.
At Beijing Normal University, Zhang continues to maintain his "day job" by teaching and researching as a cosmologist.
SETI research, for now, is a secondary activity. Zhang receives no financial support and manages his projects from his home office along with two of his assistants. In these 17,5 hours that the authorities have granted him to FAST he dreams of making the discoveries that will convince officials to support his work in the future.
For the past couple of years, Zhang's team has had to settle for conducting observations by collecting SETI data while the telescope observed other targets. Zhang could not point the antenna at the areas of his choice.
Zhang is not alone, however
The lack of support for SETI is not unique to China. In the US, Congress has repeatedly cut funding for NASA's SETI project, with the senator Richard Bryan who, during a speech in the 90s, labeled the program as a hunt for "little green friends".
Berkeley is one of the few American institutions that still focuses on SETI, relying on private funding from an initiative called Breakthrough Listen signed by the Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner.
It's hard to get funding for things that don't pay off in a few years. In astronomy, of course, people think on a very long time scale, but most people don't.
We don't even know what to look for
There is uncertainty in the SETI community about the most effective way to search for alien civilizations. The dominant method until now has been to look for "unnatural" radio signals (of the latest, striking, I have spoken here). Messages intentionally transmitted to Earth from a distant civilization, or radio waves accidentally spilled into space, such as chatter from cell phones and televisions.
But this approach is based on a bold assumption: that other civilizations are more or less like ours.
“It's hard to predict what another civilization is doing,” says Werthimer. "We're looking for the kinds of things we would do, but that could be a completely wrong approach."
But Chinese researchers are using the same methods
The Chinese SETI (Professor Zhang and his two students) has already identified about 70 solar systems within the Milky Way galaxy for FAST to observe. All of them have a stable sun and planets with the right conditions to hold liquid water - the best ingredients to bring out life.
“I think there is a good chance of discovering something we don't know from the goals we have chosen,” he says Zhao Haichen, a sophomore from Beijing Normal University who joined the project last year. "But it's hard to say what we can find."
Zhao, who like Zhang is from Shandong province, became interested in SETI for the first time after reading "The problem of the three bodies“Hugo Award-winning novel by the science fiction writer Liu Cixin on the fallout from Earth contact with an alien race.
Like the novelist, Zhao expects extraterrestrial civilizations to be probably far more advanced than ours.
Also Tao Zhenzhao, the other student who collaborates with Zhang, approached SETI after big binge science fiction. In his view, looking for a cosmic neighbor is simply a sensible thing to do.
“Our sun has a limited lifespan. One day, humans will have to leave the Earth, ”says the 26-year-old. "If we find extraterrestrials, it means we can migrate to other planets."
What will be in the coming months for Chinese SETI?
Zhang has little time for science fiction sagas, dismissing them as "non-science".
It is focusing solely on growing China's SETI community. In October, the International Academy of Astronautics named Zhang a member of the SETI program committee, despite his relatively short time in the field. He hopes this recognition will help him get a grant from China's National Science Foundation.
The money would be vital to fuel future research, as well as attracting Chinese aspiring scientists to the field, Zhang says.
Much will depend on the data that will arrive from FAST in the coming weeks. Though he dreams of a breakthrough, Zhang knows there are never guarantees in SETI research.
"What we can find depends on our luck," says Zhang. “Honestly, the most likely outcome is that we don't find anything. It's like buying lottery tickets: most of the time you don't win “.
Sometimes, however, Zhang imagines what would happen if the team detects an extraterrestrial signal.
The first step, he says, would be to create a large organization of astronomers from around the world to study the source of the signal. So maybe the team could train all the planet's radio telescopes on that tiny dot in the universe, he suggests.
"If I find that there are actual signs, then wow," says Zhang. "Not just all SETI scientists, but all astronomers will come running."