“One of a Hundred Thousand”: ZHOU Guangzhao -The Story of a Scientific Hero





On March 31, 2012, the China Hall of Science and Technology in Beijing was brimming with some of the world’s finest minds, including State Councilor LIU Yandong, Professor Chen Ning YANG of Tsinghua University, and a host of other distinguished guests and scientists that assembled to witness the first-ever presentation of the “Qiu Shi Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Qiu Shi Science & Technologies Foundation of Hong Kong. The Qiu Shi Science & Technologies Foundation began conferring its various Awards since 1994, and has since funded hundreds of outstanding Chinese scientists in various fields ranging from mathematics and physics to chemistry and biomedicine. At this year’s annual meeting, the attending advisers and scientists had decided to inaugurate the “Qiu Shi Lifetime Achievement Award” and agreed unanimously to grant the first award to the eminent physicist and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences ZHOU Guangzhao. At the award ceremony, Foundation Chairman Payson CHA expressed the following: “If outstanding scientific achievement was once the single leading indicator of Qiu Shi awards, the ‘Qiu Shi Lifetime Achievement Award’ could be said to have three: indisputable academic success, commendable scientific aspiration, and demonstrable dedication to humanistic causes.” Therein is an apt depiction of Zhou’s own life. From his brilliant academic performance at Tsinghua and Beijing University to his meritorious service as a scientist in China’s “Two Bombs, One Satellite” project, Zhou Guangzhao’s life has spanned China’s tumultuous period of war and tribulation to its present glories as scientific and technological giant. Zhou’s name has become akin to a shining beacon of light along China’s long road to prosperity. 



Graduate of Tsinghua and Peking University



Zhou Guangzhao was born in 1929 into a home of intellectuals in Ningxiang, Hunan Province. His father, ZHOU Fengjiu, was an expert highway engineer whose brilliance and hard work in civil engineering left an indelible imprint on the younger Zhou. However, according to his own recollection, Zhou was not a studious child. Due to his father’s demanding work schedule, Zhou and his siblings only saw their father on occasion. And owing to a lack of discipline at home, Zhou tended to footle his time away, “no different than your typical trouble-maker.” When Zhou was nine, the Sino-Japanese War broke out, and he and his family were forced to flee for safety. During this time, his father was dispatched to the city of Xichang to work on the highway connecting Sichuan and Yunnan. Meanwhile, he and his older brother remained in Chongqing where they attended Nankai Middle School. His life as he knew it would never be the same.



At Nankai Middle School, Zhou’s academic performance was nothing out of the ordinary. But he was strongly influenced by a math teacher by the name of TANG Xiuyin. Ms. Tang, a young graduate of National Central University, was well received by her students, teaching with fresh verve and encouraging students to think for themselves. It was at this time that Zhou Guangzhao began to develop a keen interest in mathematics, consciously allotting more time to spend on his math homework.



In 1946, China enjoyed brief post-war respite. Zhou and his family returned to Hunan and applied for college that same fall. He was accepted by Tsinghua University, but only under the condition that he enroll in a year of remedial classes –comparable to today’s prep school – to compensate for his inadequate test scores. Tsinghua University was then the pinnacle of higher learning in China, attracting a gallery of the most gifted young students from across the country among whom Zhao, being only its prep school student, felt no small amount of pressure. Zhou began to recognize deficiencies in his studies and sought to emulate his classmates by applying himself fully to his studies. Realizing that the Tsinghua University Library was left unsupervised during night hours, Zhou volunteered himself as part-time librarian so that he might avail himself of the time to get some reading done. The learning curve was exponential.



At the end of the 1940s, the paths of many of China’s outstanding physicists including YE Qisun and WANG Zhuxi had converged at Tsinghua University, as they willingly gave of their knowledge in the hope of raising up a new generation of physicists in China during the post-war years of reconstruction. Ye Qisun, a luminary in the world of physics, served as chairman of the Physics Department and dean of the School of Science. He cared a great deal for the young students of Tsinghua, which, as the deeply impressed Zhou Guangzhao remembered, “had such an aura of affability about him.” Wang Zhuxi was esteemed both at home and abroad as one of the “Four Stars of Tsinghua.” After returning from his studies in Cambridge, Wang was known for his strict manner and high standards of excellence. As Zhou recalled, “You’d have to give him your undivided attention if you wanted to do well in his class.” Zhou walked away from Wang’s class with not only a considerable grasp of thermodynamics, but also with Prof. Wang’s meticulous and earnest appreciation of science. Zhou was to enjoy the fruits from his harvest at Tsinghua for a lifetime to come, as the door of the science now stood wide open before him and he was now able unswervingly to give himself to the road ahead. 



While Zhou was applying to study in the beautiful Tsinghua campus, the world without was experiencing change of epic proportions. Growing up amid an era of historical revolution, Zhou and his classmates were conditioned to keep a watchful eye on politics and pondered China’s future with sober concern. At the end of 1946, a soldier of the US military raped a Chinese female student in Beiping (today’s Beijing) in what became known as the “Shen Chong Incident of 1946.” Students of every college and university in Beiping flooded the streets in protest of this atrocity committed by the US military. When he caught wind of the news, Zhou was overcome with indignation and took part in the procession. A number of publications at this time were in circulation among students describing the so-called “Liberated Zones.” After perusing them, Zhou began to reflect differently on China’s future. Zhou recalled the close friendship he maintained with his middle school classmate CHEN Li all the way through his studies at Tsinghua and at the Philosophy Department of Beijing University. Chen Li was the son of Chen Bulei, known as the “first pen” of Chiang Kai-shek, but his convictions nevertheless betrayed a communistic bent evident in his student activism. Chen used to bring along Zhou to visit his elder sister Chen Lian, who had by that time been inducted as a member of the underground Communist Party. She would tell Zhou about the liberated zones and communism and encourage him in the midst of his studies to keep abreast of China’s goings-on and her future. Zhou was then already beginning to sense that “China needs to be liberated, we have to do something to liberate China.”  



The regime change did not disrupt Zhou from his scientific pursuits. After graduating from Tsinghua in July 1951, he continued his graduate studies in the same department. In 1952, there were structural changes in schools nationwide; the Science Department of Tsinghua University was merged into Peking University. Now at Peking University, Zhou studied basic particle physics under the theoretical physicist Professor PENG Huanwu, known as the premier Chinese physicist of his day and established the research of numerous theories in nuclear physics, neutron physics, and nuclear explosions in China. To use Zhou’s words, “Virtually everyone who would later work in these fields was, directly or indirectly, a pupil of his.” This period under Peng’s expert tutelage was of great profit to Zhou, who would later describe Peng as an easy-going man with whom one could speak freely about anything. Peng regarded his students as friends and would routinely join them on park outings and meals and enjoy long talks about major events happening at home and abroad. In 1952, Zhou joined the Communist Party of China (CPC). In 1954, he graduated from Peking University where he remained as faculty member. 



A nascent star at Dubna



In August 1945, two atomic bombs were successively detonated over Japan. They in effect ended the Second World War by virtue of their massive destructive power and embroiled the world at large in a new era known as the nuclear arms race. Zhou Guangzhao was still a junior at the Chongqing Nankai High School at the time. He didn’t know a whit about physics, much less atomic bombs, since physics classes were not offered to students until their senior year. But thanks to his classmate Chen Li, Zhou heard about the breaking news of the atomic bomb and learned that physics was integrally involved and thus a field with a promising future. It was perhaps this episode which tickled Zhou’s fancy and compelled him in his university days to set out on the path of physics. Following his graduation he utilized all that he had learned as a teaching faculty, forgetting the link between his pursuit of physics and the atomic bomb that initially set it off. That explosive incident seemed to carry prophetic import of sorts, for in 1957, Zhou faced a turning point in his life and made a decision that would form in him a lifelong bond with atomic power.  



The decade immediately following the birth of the People’s Republic of China marked the height of intimacy in its relations with the USSR. A large wave of Soviet experts entered the country to participate in the construction and advance of industry and science in China; China, meanwhile, scouted out its own scientific research talents to send to the USSR where they could learn from “Big Brother” himself. In order to deal with America’s nuclear threat potential, Chinese high-level officials had placed the research and development of nuclear weapons at the top of their agenda, and made it the top priority of learning from the Soviets. These dynamics created the backdrop for the spring of 1957, during which Zhou received his assignment to study at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, USSR. 



The Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna was established in 1956 in Moscow, with the joint signing of a pact by delegates of various socialist nations. This small city abutting the Volga River had to accommodate the scientific research personnel of twelve of these socialist nations as they conducted research in high-energy physics. It served as the de facto center of science and technology from which the socialist camp confronted the Western powers during the Cold War era. China dispatched dozens of scientists to participate in these collaborative research efforts; Zhou Guangzhao was one such individual. He came recommended by HU Ning, a physicist sent among the initial wave of research personnel. Zhou, only 28 at the time, had already become an important vertebra in the backbone of Chinese physics.



During his undergraduate studies, Zhou was given three opportunities to study in the Soviet Union, but all were aborted in light of the complex state of affairs at home and abroad. The ambitious Zhou was thus on cloud nine when he was finally given the green light to devote himself to physics research in the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that the research facilities at Dubna were hardly state of the art relative to the rest of the world then, the experience was nevertheless an eye-opener for Zhou, who had just left the grounds of a research environment stymied by information blockage. With access to an on-site library, Zhou had at his fingertips a wealth of industry-related news inaccessible in China. At Dubna he could enjoy frequent lectures by renowned scholars who could serve as primary sources in cutting-edge research developments. During his four-year stint there, the twenty-something Zhou put his young brilliance on display. He was awarded two research prizes by the Institute and published a total of 33 papers, many of which attracted the attention of the international physics community.



To be sure, Zhou approached his work with a teachable disposition, but his staunch commitment to uphold truth in scientific research left him with no qualms about making his doubts heard, even when the party addressed happened to be a Soviet expert. In one particular incident, Zhou’s group leader Markov invited him to participate in a discussion pertaining to relativistic spinning particles, a cutting-edge issue about which a well-known Soviet professor had already formulated his own conclusion. After the meeting, Zhou found this professor and proposed a different perspective on the matter. Zhou, in other words, was challenging the professor to his face. Thereafter, the professor looked upon him with sharp disapproval, but Zhou did not let that stop him. He spent upwards of three months scrupulously working through step-by-step deductions and proofs, culminating in his paper “Relativistic Theory of Polarized Particle Reaction.” Some time later, similar conclusions were reached by scientists in the US. This is the backstory behind Zhou’s famous paper on the helical state amplitude of particles. The Soviet professor was left speechless. After this tussle of sorts, the two men went on to strike up a cordial friendship. 



Recalling his experiences at Dubna, Zhou commented that his greatest takeaway was the conditioning he received regarding his way of thinking. He believed that such training taught him where to start in the process of finding the most satisfying solution to a particular problem. As he put it, “I had received constant training all throughout schooling, but the training I received in Dubna was particularly intense.” Zhou’s experiences at Dubna in effect laid the foundation off of which he and his colleagues would later build, as they started from scratch and spearheaded the initiative of theoretical research in nuclear weapons.



The gatekeeper in the making of the atomic bomb



By 1959, the Sino-Soviet rift was irreparably deep and eventually rent the two countries asunder. The Soviets unilaterally withdrew all of their specialist aid in China, resulting in the temporary abeyance of research in areas including nuclear science. China found itself amid a bleak period of unprecedented isolation. MAO Zedong issued the rallying call to “use our own hands, starting from scratch, as we prepare to produce, within eight years, our own atomic bomb.” The state decided to adopt a policy of self-reliance, appointing a regiment from among its own body of scientists to produce an atomic bomb.



Such was the occasion for the special visit of TSIEN San-tsiang, the then deputy director of the Second Ministry of Machine Building Industry and director of the Institute of Atomic Energy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). He engaged in extended discussion with Zhou and other Chinese scientists and expounded on the difficulties China faced following the Soviet withdrawal. It was not difficult to read between the lines – Tsien was offering a summons to return and conduct atomic weapon research on home turf.



For Zhou and the many other Chinese scientists based in the USSR, the impending homecoming meant leaving their element and abandoning all research achievements and work in progress at Dubna. As the branch secretary, Zhou convened a Party branch meeting. The scientists present spoke of one accord: “Our country needs us. We can let go of our work here and go back. We must do all that is within our power for the sake of China’s prosperity.” Zhou, along with LV Min, HE Zuo-xiu, and others, signed a reply to China that expressed their firm resolve to return.



In April of 1961, Zhou boarded a train to begin his southward trip home. Soon after arriving in China’s capital, he moved into the No.9 Academy of the Second Ministry of Machine Building Industry. As the first vice-director of the Department of Theory, he began his “confidential work” which was to continue for the next nineteen years. Chen Ning Yang later remarked: “Guangzhao’s return hastened the detonation of China’s first atomic bomb by a year or two.” 



It didn’t take long before a team was organized to work on developing the atomic bomb. The team was comprised of senior scientists WANG Gan-chang, PENG Huanwu, and GUO Yonghuai as well as younger talents such as ZHU Guang-ya, DENG Jiaxian, and CHENG Kaijia. The 33 year-old Zhou was then in the middle of his prime. Serving under him were some of the finest young minds selected from various college and university graduates. This unique assemblage of senior, middle-aged, and young scientists created a team that was superior in terms of both its high-level expertise and its creative vitality. It was not unusual for Zhou to work with individuals at least ten years his minor. These young colleagues were meticulous and earnest in their work ethic and endured the arduous conditions with a devotion that permitted no hesitation. Their commitment represented to Zhou a ray of hope for the future of science in China.



The besetting difficulties can be easily imagined when one considers the utter lack of authoritative data and hands-on experience necessary for the development of China’s first atomic bomb, following the withdrawal of the Soviet experts. Even the records that the Soviet specialists had left behind still needed to be verified, as the stakes are incomparably high in the research and development of an atomic bomb, and require the utmost precision. In the earliest stages of making the atomic bomb, there was a summary record based on the oral dictation of the USSR’s chief scientific consultant in which the Chinese scientists came across a piece of dubious data. Day after day, Deng Jiaxian oversaw a group of young people and led them through various computations, the results of which were still incongruent with the Soviet records. Zhou undertook the task of verifying the data produced by Deng’s small group. He attacked it from a completely different angle, beginning with the explosive capacity usage ratio to identify its maximum range, and in so doing verified the accuracy of Deng’s findings – which meant that the Soviet records were wrong. Similar instances of overcoming technological hurdles abound. Zhou and his comrades were able through their self-reliance to snap the tether that held them hostage to the knowledge of the Soviet experts. They began finally to stand on their own two feet in the making of China’s first atomic bomb. 



The making of the atomic bomb had obvious ramifications for national security and was thus kept in strict confidentiality. Zhou and his teammates endured long-term isolation from the rest of civilization – even their family members were left in the dark. Zhou made the following reflection: “There were rumors abroad that we were dead, that they had engineered something and there was some kind of explosion during our flight back home, so we had all died. Rumors like this were afloat.” 



On October 15, 1964, it was all systems go for China’s first atomic bomb, as it had undergone repeated testing by scientific research personnel and was now waiting in Lop Nur, Xinjiang for its detonation. Zhou was waiting for the big moment from his “bunker” in Beijing. The day before the scheduled detonation, however, Zhou received an emergency telegram from Lop Nur requesting his re-examination because of concerns over the bomb’s design. Zhou intuited that the telegram must have represented the intention of Premier ZHOU Enlai, who had been inspecting the experimental base in Lop Nur. Thus began the all night computation for Zhou and his colleagues. The following morning, they reported their results to Zhou Enlai, stating that, barring factors outside of human control, the detonation of the atomic bomb would be error-free with a success rate of 99.9%. Their report had finally set the hearts of on-site personnel at ease.



That afternoon, the atomic bomb was successfully detonated in Lop Nur. China officially stepped into its new rank as a country armed with nuclear power.



“I’m just one of a hundred thousand”



After the successful completion of the atomic bomb, Zhou and other scientists followed the directive of the central government and began preparations for making the hydrogen bomb. However, it was then that the Cultural Revolution began to wreak its havoc. The No.9 Institute of the Second Ministry of Machine Building Industry, where Zhou belonged, met with harsh impacts. To make matters worse, Zhou’s family background was a blemish that fostered suspicion against insurrectionists, his parents having held office decades earlier when the Kuomintang was yet in power. His family was subjected to ransacking and confiscations several times and had to part with many family pictures and notes that were lost amid lootings. Even Zhou’s parents-in-law, who were then in Beijing helping taking care of his child, were drove back to the countryside.



Zhou was touched by the personal care expressed by many in a climate that was marked by widespread sense of insecurity and inconstancy in human relationships. Zhou had left for the USSR in 1957 and thus never had to experience the “Anti-Rightist” and other similar movements. Many comrades who had theretofore seen little of him began to reach out and offer consolation lest he feel overwhelmed by the pressure; some even cursed Jiang Qing (then wife of Chairman Mao) in his presence. At the end of 1966, Zhou and others plodded onward in their research and tests of the H-bomb even as they were vilified as insurrectionists. Marshal NIE Rongzhen was heading out to perform his inspection when he noticed that Zhou and others were lodging in houses made of tamped clay walls in the bitter cold. Immediately he directed Zhou to be moved into a building and expressed concern about Zhou’s asthma. Zhou was moved by such displays of concern and affection, which confirmed to him the need to power through all the blockades that might keep him from the completion of the H-bomb.



On June 17, 1967, the mushroom cloud produced by China’s first hydrogen bomb could be seen rising up into the atmosphere. China only spent two years and eight months following the detonation of its first atomic bomb to develop its first hydrogen bomb. The world looked on in amazement; French President de Gaulle looked on with fury. Pounding his desk, he grilled the officials and scientists of the General Administration of the French Atomic Energy Commission and demanded to know how they could possibly let the Chinese beat them to the draw.



Zhou Guangzhao answered the honor credited him with an unassuming reply: “The scientific undertaking is a collective undertaking. Building an atomic bomb is like writing a soul-stirring essay. This essay was written by over a hundred thousand individuals, from workers, to soldiers of the Liberation Army, to personnel in science and engineering. I am just one of a hundred thousand.”



After China’s reform and opening up policy in the late 70s, Zhou successively served as director of CAS, chairman of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), and vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the Ninth National People’s Congress, all the while continuing zealously to offer himself to the scientific enterprise and the socioeconomic development of China. During his tenure at CAST, the organization proposed before the central government the formulation and implementation of the “National Scientific Literacy Action Plan,” which was accepted and put into force. Subsequently, the education, propagation, and spread of science began to infiltrate farms and villages and benefit countless lives.


Zhou would often openly criticize the many problems and challenges in China’s scientific and technological sectors with his candid and forthright personality. Regarding the scientific research climate in China, he reproached: “First, it lacks an atmosphere of academic democracy. As soon as an academician or someone from the authorities opens his mouth, there’s hardly a man who will dare to say a word more. Second, there is needless information blockage. Everyone’s fearful that other people will steal their ideas.” As for the status quo in academia, Zhou expressed grave concern: “I’m especially worried about society’s frenzied rush for quick success. There are some who practice fraud; there are others who are so obsessed with meeting paper quotas that they cast a blind eye to quality and do nothing but follow others.” On one occasion, he publicly rebuked the academician system: “Academia would do well to lose its entire ‘authority consciousness.’ It is only by engaging in discussion on a level playing field that we will be able to truly raise up our talents and bring about technological innovation.”



In March of 1996, in recognition of Zhao’s outstanding contributions in his “Two Bombs and One Satellite” service projects, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature decided to give Asteroid No. 3462, discovered at the Purple Hills Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, its new name: “Planet Zhouguangzhao.”



Source: Phoenix Weekly June 8, 2012  

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