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    Plea to raise profile of 'grassroots scientists'
Jia Hepeng
2005-11-17 06:24

Books and reference materials lie piled up on almost every surface in the two-room apartment of Jiang Chunxuan, a retired senior engineer from a research institute affiliated with the former Space Industry Ministry. Dust has gathered on some of them.

Driven by his ardent research into the most difficult problems in the world of modern mathematics, Jiang, 69, is known to enlighten visitors about his "breakthroughs."

He spends most of his waking hours reading, cracking mathematical problems and writing theses.

He believes he lives a life of fulfillment as he claims to have proven the Goldbach Conjecture and Fermat's Last Theorem and denies the Riemann Hypothesis.

Grassroots scientists

Jiang is considered the best representative of numerous "grassroots scientists," who do their research outside mainstream academic circles, often with great devotion and perseverance.

"I have an unsatisfied curiosity and the zeal to solve research questions. One day I saw a friend to the bus station, but a question suddenly came into my mind so I left without saying goodbye. My friend became so angry that our relationship broke down," writes Jiang in his "The Confessions of a Grassroots Scientist," widely posted on the Internet.

Wang Dixing, a retired engineer from Beijing University of Chemical Technology, has researched the mathematics behind computer programming and has been working towards a path-breaking new computing language.

About a decade ago, Wang even made a sample of a computer using this new language at a cost of 500,000 yuan (US$61,652). Part of the money came from his institutions but most came from his own savings.

Tian Song, an associate professor of the philosophy of science at Beijing Normal University, can cite many more non-professional "scientists" like Jiang and Wang. He has been tracking such grassroots scientists for some time now.

"It is interesting to find that nearly all grassroots scientists are more than 35 years old, even retired," Tian told China Daily. "This is not incidental."

According to Tian, in the late 1970s, Chinese leaders called on all people to scale scientific heights. This was aimed at revitalizing science and technology after being neglected for 10 years during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

A majority of the grassroots scientists have had no formal science education in college, with some majoring in subjects other than what engages them now. But they have their sights set high on proving the Goldbach Conjecture, toppling Einstein's Theory of Relativity and even revising Darwinism.

Since the mid-1980s and the initiation of profit-oriented economic reforms, very few youngsters want to become "grassroots scientists." They prefer to concentrate on inventing something they can trade for money.

Unfortunately, few of the grassroots scientists have gone beyond their own conjectures and "proofs." They have become accustomed to their papers being turned down by editors of scientific journals.

Jiang has had to rely on his meagre pension to support his studies, despite the fact that he has published some of his theses in lesser known mathematics journals abroad, such as the US-based "Algebras, Groups and Geometries."

"I did not care for money or fame. I only wanted to make true innovations in science," said Jiang. "However, most Chinese professional mathematicians are dodging me because they could not follow my theories."

Likewise, no one would invest in Wang's innovative technologies and he did not receive any further sponsorship from any public institution.

"My inventions were too innovative to be accepted by academics who want to safeguard their outdated and conservative theories," said Wang at a recent seminar on grassroots scientists, held at the Beijing-based Institute of the History of Natural Sciences under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Song Zhenghai, a senior researcher at CAS's Institute of the History of Natural Sciences and a major sponsor of grassroots scientists, said the Chinese scientific community has become conservative and closed its eyes to the findings and research of the grassroots scientists.

"Many grassroots scientists do not have real inventions, but professional scientists and journal editors would not admit the truly remarkable inventions either. Once a journal editor said: 'I had received a bag of papers claiming to have proved the Goldbach Conjecture'."

Wang Wenguang, a retired senior engineer at the State Intellectual Property Office of China, said while the peer-review system introduced in China in the 1980s has helped regularize academia, it has excluded the grassroots scientists because the evaluating scientists often favour research done by members of their own schools. Much of the multi-disciplinary research done by grassroots scientists surpasses the knowledge of the evaluators.

On November 2 and 3, the Shanghai Morning Post reported that the attack on so-called pseudo-science by professional scientists had led to unfair treatment of grassroots scientists such as Jiang.

"Because Jiang's work (of denying the Riemann Hypothesis) could topple a large part of modern mathematical construction such as prime number theories, domestic journal editors and domestic mathematicians refused to publish his works and even avoid talking with him," Song claimed.

Grievances unfounded?

Are such criticisms justified?

Fang Zhouzi, a US-based Chinese columnist, said: "Many people think science does not need the accumulation of knowledge in the academic environment and can be done simply by sudden inspiration and persistent hard work," he said during an interview with China Daily.

As a PhD holder in biochemistry at Michigan State University, Fang said it was almost impossible for the basic scientific questions to be solved by non-professional grassroots scientists.

Zhang Lihua, also from the Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, wrote in an article that "Algebras, Groups and Geometries" is not included in the Science Citation Index (SCI), and is not recognised by mainstream mathematicians as an authoritative publication. Its chief editor, R M Santilli, who praised Jiang's research as revolutionary at the international mathematics society, is a former physicist, not a mathematician.

Fang Zhouzi said that in the 1980s, former CAS president Fang Yi asked its Institute of Mathematics to evaluate Jiang's research. The verdict? It was wrong.

But Jiang said: "The evaluation meeting was over before participants understood my theories."

No mathematician would comment publicly on Jiang.

"He has misunderstood some basic mathematic conceptions and we cannot communicate with him because he has been engulfed in a whole system of his own theories. In addition, he is a very kind old man and no one wants to hurt him," a mathematician with the pen name Mr Dongguo, wrote in a major mathematics BBS at

In his article on Jiang's paper in "Algebras, Groups and Geometries," Zhang said that it was understandable if one or two mathematicians dismissed Jiang. But if all mathematicians did so, it implied some basic problems in Jiang's theories.

He Zuoxiu, a senior physicist and an academician at CAS, said that many grassroots scientists complain of not being taken seriously by the mainstream scientific community, but the reason for this is that their methods do not accord with accepted academic rigour.

"Grassroots scientists often cite the example of Einstein, whose Principle of Relativity was at first refused by mainstream scientists. But they neglect the fact that Einstein published his papers in an academically acceptable way," He told China Daily.

He of CAS said that if the grassroots scientists wanted to be admitted by the mainstream community, they have to present their research in the context of current academic disciplines.

Fang recommends that China's grassroots scientists should give up their impossible goals, such as striving for the Nobel or other similar awards. "They can even offer help to the professional science community. For example, in the United States, there are many grassroots meteorite seekers or planet observers who share their results with professional scientists," Fang said.

But Song said China's grassroots scientists do not do their research simply as a hobby. Their work should be considered an integral part of scientific research and they should enjoy the same right to public funding as professional scientists.

"When deciding science awards and science funding, the evaluators should not just consider the education and institutional backgrounds of researchers and they should equally take grassroots scientists into account," Song added.

(China Daily 11/17/2005 page14)


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