The scientist who refused to be average

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the world's largest radio telescope, celebrated its first anniversary on Monday.

XinhuaUpdated: September 26, 2017

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the world's largest radio telescope, celebrated its first anniversary on Monday, but its founding father was not there to enjoy the moment.

Nan Rendong, chief scientist of the FAST project, died from lung cancer at the age of 72, just 10 days before the celebration.

He underwent surgery after being diagnosed with the disease two years ago. As soon as he was discharged from hospital, Nan was moved to a house on the outskirts of Beijing where he could grow flowers and walk his dog.

However, the old man could not bear such an idle life, describing it as like "being in jail." Nan continued his work despite illness, invoking the spirit of his own personal motto: "Refuse to be average."

Exploring the universe

The astronomer was known to often look up at the starlit sky in the dead of night, pondering life's big questions. Who are we? Where are we from? Are we alone in the universe?

This curiosity as well as his patriotism prompted Nan to bid farewell to the good salary and world-class research environment he had while working as a visiting professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

Nan had been in charge of FAST since 1994, leading the research team to work around the clock, pouring all his energy into the project.

He aimed to build the largest super-sensitive "ear" of Earth to seek distant sounds in the universe and decode cosmic messages.

The project, once viewed by many as an impossible mission, completed its main structure installation -- a 4,450-panel reflector as large as 30 football pitches -- last year.

It is capable of enlarging and searching for sun-like stars, using technology five times more powerful than what was previously available. It can receive electromagnetic signals from 10 billion light-years away, and perhaps bring the search for extraterrestrial life closer to what would be an astonishing conclusion.

Arduous task

The site selection was the most important yet challenging work at the initial stage of the project. Nan began site surveying in 1994, including geo-morphological features, climate, engineering environment and radio interference.

After trudging on rugged mountains for thousands upon thousands of miles in southeast China over more than 10 years, Nan finally found the ideal site, a karst valley deep in mountainous Guizhou Province.

With little mature technology to refer to, Nan experienced numerous technical difficulties.

The team overcame more than a hundred failures to solve a cable-net problem, with Nan always the first to conduct any manned trials during the building process.

"The building of FAST is not driven by economic interests, but the human desire for innovation and exploration," Nan said. "You will always make unexpected gains during scientific adventures."

The radio telescope will be the global leader for the next 10 to 20 years, according to Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observation.

The man behind this unprecedented project, though mourned by families, students and colleagues, wished for his funeral to be simple, with no event held.

"Attracted by its mystery and glory, we can go beyond mediocrity and step into the vast beautiful universe," Nan wrote.