BEIJING — Zhang Tongjie cuts an unassuming figure. A slight man wearing a dark plaid shirt and square-rimmed spectacles, he’s almost a caricature of a kindly middle-aged professor.
The 52-year-old, however, is a man with cosmic ambitions.
For the past six years, the academic has been tirelessly working to make China a leading player in an unlikely research field: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. And he believes he’s now on the verge of success.
Scientists have been hunting for evidence of alien civilizations for decades. Though these efforts have proved fruitless so far, it hasn’t deterred researchers who consider it improbable that humanity is alone in a universe housing over 100 billion galaxies.
In China, SETI research is just starting to gain popularity. Yet Zhang, a professor of cosmology at Beijing Normal University, is already convinced his country could be the first to detect a signal from another world.
“We will probably find it first,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone in his cramped Beijing office. “They (the West) have more experience, but … our telescope can detect things theirs can’t.”
China’s trump card is the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) — a giant observatory built on a mountaintop in the southwestern Guizhou province in 2016. The facility is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, around 2.5 times more powerful than any previous instrument of its kind.
Many consider FAST to be a game-changer for SETI, as it could be capable of picking up signals from outer space missed during previous observations. Zhang has spent years lobbying Chinese authorities for greater access to the telescope.
And in August, these efforts finally paid off, with the National Astronomical Observatories granting Zhang 17.5 hours at FAST’s controls spread over several months. For weeks, he worked intensively with his team to create a shortlist of solar systems he suspects are most likely to host intelligent beings.
The observations — China’s first SETI project — began on Saturday. Over the coming months, the telescope will train its giant antenna on dozens of galactic coordinates supplied by Zhang, listening for any unusual radio activity.
The stakes are high. If Zhang makes a groundbreaking discovery, he hopes to win the official backing he needs to grow China’s SETI community. But if he fails, it could be even harder to secure observation time in the future.
A GIF showing how the FAST telescope receives and focuses radio signals from outer space. Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone
Though the odds of making history are slim, Zhang insists his team has a greater chance than any before them.
“It’s still not powerful enough, but FAST is the best instrument we have,” he says. “There is hope.”
In many ways, Zhang is an unlikely champion for SETI. Born in a rural region of the eastern Shandong province in 1968, stargazing wasn’t a childhood passion.
Zhang’s interest in science developed after the Cultural Revolution came to an end in the late 1970s, when China’s leaders launched a campaign to modernize the country. He initially hoped to become a mathematician, but after failing to win a place in a university math program, he was forced to study physics instead.
In 1993, Zhang went to the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory to pursue a graduate degree in cosmology, and for the next 20 years he quietly climbed the academic ladder. The thought of spending time to look for extraterrestrials barely crossed his mind. Though he’d always wondered about the possibility of life on other planets, pursuing research in this area seemed fanciful, he says.
“I was just curious about aliens like regular people,” he says. “I’d never thought of doing it myself.”
But a research trip to the United States in 2014 changed everything.
Zhang Tongjie, 52, leaves his office at Beijing Normal University, Oct. 13, 2020. Zhang teaches several classes in cosmology at the university. Ye Ruolin/Sixth Tone
Zhang spent several days at the University of California, Berkeley, a school that has been famous for its SETI research program since the late ’70s. The university developed the SETI data collection instruments that are now installed on several of the world’s leading radio telescopes, including FAST.
“When I was at Berkeley, I saw with my own eyes that they were developing actual tools and writing computer programs for SETI — it wasn’t just an idea they were throwing around,” recalls Zhang. “That’s what convinced me.”
Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at Berkeley’s SETI research center, met Zhang during his trip. He recalls the Chinese professor becoming excited as he introduced his team’s work, especially when the conversation turned to FAST, which was then under construction.
“We’ve been interested in this question of ‘are we alone?’ for thousands of years,” says Werthimer. “Then, here’s this telescope that might answer the question. How can you resist that?”
Professor Dan Werthimer of University of California, Berkeley, poses for a photo in front of the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, 2012. Courtesy of Dan Werthimer.
The pair has been working together ever since. Berkeley focuses on developing tools for SETI data collection, while Zhang works with FAST — which has yet to open to projects led by international researchers — and analyzes the data collected.
Zhang’s pivot to SETI was a courageous move, says Werthimer. Most modern SETI research is based on theories from radio astronomy — a field in which the Chinese professor had no expertise. Yet he decided to jump in regardless.
“Most people don’t do that at his age,” says Werthimer. “I haven’t switched fields in my career. It’s kind of a bold, cool thing to do.”
In reality, the decision was even braver than the American probably realized. Before Zhang, no Chinese astronomer had attempted SETI research, and the field was often dismissed as sheer science fiction.
SETI’s reputation had been tarnished by association with the 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 started publishing a magazine — The Journal of UFO Research — that later claimed to be “the most widely circulated SETI magazine in Asia.” Throughout the following decades, the magazine was filled with speculation about the Bermuda Triangle and letters from people describing encounters with alien spacecraft.
Zhang firmly distances himself from the publication. “Nothing in it is proven,” he says. “It’s not science, and I don’t want to be associated with it.”
The professor admits that SETI is a hard sell when it comes to official support and recognition. Even decision-makers who understand it’s a serious science are often reluctant to provide funding: China is impatient to establish a reputation as a global leader in science, but SETI research may not produce concrete results for years — or ever.
“Many people want to start a SETI program, but they have worries or don’t want to do it on the record,” says Zhang. “But I do it with no reservation.”
A diagram shows the location of the solar system 16 Cygni B, one of Zhang’s observation targets. It’s about 69 light-years from Earth. From Daviddarling.info and re-edited by Sixth Tone
Students walk past the astronomy department building at Beijing Normal University, Oct. 13, 2020. Ye Ruolin/Sixth Tone
At Beijing Normal University, Zhang continues to hold down his “day job” as a cosmologist, teaching classes and leading several research projects that allow him to maintain a steady output of academic papers. As long as he keeps up this work, “the school doesn’t really care what I do,” he says.
The SETI research, however, is a side hustle for now. Zhang receives no financial backing and runs his projects from his home office along with two student assistants. He’s banking on making discoveries during the 17.5 hours at FAST that’ll help convince officials to support his work in the future.
“It depends on what I can discover this time,” he says. “I do what I can in the allowed space.”
Much will depend on the attitude of the National Astronomical Observatories, the body that oversees FAST. Although SETI is listed among the telescope’s seven main research missions, the organization hasn’t always been fully on board.
Over the past two years, Zhang’s team had to settle for conducting commensal SETI observations at FAST — essentially collecting SETI data while the telescope is observing other targets. But commensal surveys didn’t allow Zhang to point the antenna at the objects of his choosing.
Earlier this year, however, Zhang and his colleagues published a paper in a prestigious astronomy journal, demonstrating their ability to analyze SETI data. This may have been decisive in convincing officials to allot Zhang his precious window of observation time, he says.
The lack of support for SETI isn’t unique to China. In the United States, Congress has repeatedly cut funding for NASA’s SETI project, with Senator Richard Bryan famously labeling the program a hunt for “little green fellows” during an address in the ’90s.
Berkeley is one of the few American institutions still focusing on SETI, relying on private funding from an initiative called Breakthrough Listen underwritten by the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.
“SETI is kind of pie-in-the-sky research,” Werthimer says. “It’s hard to get funding for things that don’t pay off in a few years. In astronomy, of course, we think on a long time scale, but most people don’t.”
In the SETI community, there’s uncertainty over the most effective way of searching for alien civilizations. The dominant method up to now has been to scan for radio signals that appear unnatural. These could be messages beamed toward Earth intentionally by a far-away civilization, or radio waves spilled into space accidentally — like the chatter from cellphones and TVs.
But this approach rests on a bold supposition: That other civilizations are just like ours. “It’s hard to predict what another civilization is doing,” says Werthimer. “So we look for the kind of stuff that we do, but that could be completely wrong.”
The Chinese researchers, though, are using the same methods. They have identified around 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 for life to emerge, the team reasons.
“I think the science is reliable and there’s a good chance of discovering something we don’t know from the targets we’ve picked,” says Zhao Haichen, a sophomore at 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, first became interested in SETI after reading “The Three-Body Problem” — the Hugo Award-winning novel by science fiction writer Liu Cixin about the fallout from Earth’s contact with an alien race. Like the novelist, Zhao expects that extraterrestrial civilizations are likely to be far more advanced than our own.
Zhao Haichen (left) and Tao Zhenzhao discuss the observation targets they’ve chosen at a café in Beijing, Oct. 14, 2020. Ye Ruolin/Sixth Tone
Tao Zhenzhao, another student who works with Zhang, also became curious about SETI after bingeing on sci-fi — in his case, American blockbuster movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy.” In his view, searching for a cosmic neighbor is simply a sensible thing to do.
“Our sun has a finite lifespan. One day, humans will have to leave Earth,” says the 26-year-old. “If we find extraterrestrials, it means we can migrate to other planets.”
Zhang, however, has little time for sci-fi sagas like “Three-Body,” dismissing it as “not science.” He’s focusing solely on growing China’s SETI community.
In October, the International Academy of Astronautics appointed Zhang a committee member on the organization’s SETI program, despite his relatively short time in the field. He hopes this recognition might help him secure a grant from China’s National Science Foundation.
The money would be vital to fueling future research, as well as attracting aspiring Chinese scientists to the field, Zhang says.
But much will depend on the data that comes back from FAST over the coming weeks. Though he dreams of making a breakthrough, Zhang accepts there are never guarantees in SETI research.
“What we can find depends on our luck,” Zhang says. “Honestly, the most likely outcome is that we find nothing. It’s like buying lottery tickets — most of the time you don’t win.”
Professor Zhang Tongjie works in his office at Beijing Normal University, Oct. 13, 2020. Ye Ruolin/Sixth Tone
Sometimes, though, Zhang imagines what would happen if the team detects an extraterrestrial signal.
The first step, he says, would be to set up a large organization gathering astronomers from around the world to study the signal’s source. Then, perhaps the group could train all the planet’s radio telescopes on that tiny speck in the universe, he suggests.
“If I find there are actual signals, then whoosh,” says Zhang. “Not only all the SETI scientists, but all the astronomers will come running.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: max776/Vectorstock/People Visual)