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Everyday science

Everyday science

The Science of Heaven

19 Dec 2016


By Richard de Grijs in Beijing

Good things come to those who wait. Indeed, it has been almost six years since we initially thought about making an astronomy documentary set in China – and we finally showed it in public last month. The Science of Heaven premiered on 30 November 2016 at my institution, the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University. By all accounts, it was very well received. While we are ironing out some final issues before releasing it publicly in early 2017, you can watch the trailer (above).

In commissioning this film, I specifically wanted to know more about the people behind the science: their struggles, their victories and their ambitions. So, along with my colleague Ziping Zhang from Beijing Planetarium, I first applied for funding in 2011 from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. The result? Application rejected. As active scientists, we’re used to adversity in grant applications, so the following year we tried again. The result? Rejected – again. Was it actually worth our time and effort to keep trying? We decided against pursuing the project any further. However, one morning in early 2013 the funding council rang, wondering why we had not yet submitted our proposal… so we tried again – and were finally awarded our grant funding!

Developments in China often happen rapidly, but this actually caused us headaches: the film production company we had initially agreed to collaborate with was no longer available. There we were: funding awarded but unsure about the next steps.

A chance encounter radically changed our fortunes. At an event associated with the March 2014 visit of the Dutch Minister of Education to Beijing, I ran into René Seegers, a local Dutch film maker. Upon learning that we had already secured funding, he quickly agreed to take on the documentary director’s role. However, he had misunderstood the currency of our funding, thinking in euros rather than Chinese yuan: a difference of a factor of seven!

Fast-forward almost three years, and we now are the proud creators of The Science of Heaven, an engaging film about Chinese astronomy throughout the ages. Our ambition was to produce an episode similar to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or its modern incarnation fronted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. We found their Chinese counterpart in Ying Da, who shot to national fame as director of the Chinese family sitcom I Love My Family (1993–1994) and acted in the film classic Farewell My Concubine.

Almost six years since the project’s inception, our final reel links the past to the future. For thousands of years, Chinese astronomers have observed the sky, looking for “symbols from above, imparting good or bad fortune”. They carefully logged many centuries of observational data points, yet they never used them to deduce mathematical theories about planetary movements like Galileo, Kepler or Newton. But in recent decades, Chinese scientists and engineers have been catching up rapidly. They launched humans into orbit in less than four decades, and will hopefully soon travel to the Moon. We visit remote observatories and witness the final construction phase of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the largest radio telescope on Earth. We also join Chinese scientists in Antarctica and we consider the future, anticipating a leading Chinese role in the construction and operation of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The Science of Heaven is a 52-minute documentary that will be broadcast on Chinese television in 2017. The production team is also targeting a number of documentary festivals. At a later date, it will be freely available on demand through YouTube and YouKu.

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