Legend in Chinese Optics
In a rare interview, SPIE talks with Fellow Daheng Wang, who has helped shape China's sciences for more than 60 years.
01 January 2007
Erin M. Schadt
Daheng Wang, SPIE Fellow and member of both the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, is one of the founders of applied optical science in China. He led the creation of some of the best programs in optics in the country, and in conjunction with colleagues, initiated the establishment of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, multiple optics research institutes, and the "863 High Technology Plan."
Wang, 92, began his career in optics during a turbulent time in world history. Conflicts began in 1931 between Japan and China, which led to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and did not cease until the end of World War II in 1945. These events have shaped Wang's life and career ever since.
"From a young age, under the influence of my teachers and encouragement from my parents, I was determined to work hard and help our country with science," says Wang.
He graduated with a physics degree from Tsinghua University in 1936, and continued to teach and conduct research there until he received an educational grant from the British Boxer Indemnity. The grant allowed him to travel to the United Kingdom in 1938 to study applied optics at the Imperial College, University of London.
"When I was studying at the Imperial College, I learned the basics of optical instrument manufacturing," explains Wang. "During my study I noticed the broad scope of applied optics such as color science, metrology, especially special materials and devices needed in applied optics such as optical glasses."
After earning an MS, Wang joined the research laboratory of the Chance Company, a long-standing glass business in the UK. There he gained practical experience with optical glass manufacturing technology and processes.
"During my studies in England, I came to understand deeply that the only way to become knowledgeable is through my own hard work and practice," says Wang. "Only when you can make contributions, can you have respect from your colleagues, and can you make friends and learn from each other. I also realized how to set priorities, gain insights, and discover and analyze problems without the burden of old rules and constraints in solving problems. This is very necessary to scientific progress and development."
Returning and Rebuilding Home
In 1948, 10 years after leaving his home country, he returned to China in the midst of rebuilding after WWII and helped found the Dalian Institute of Technology (now the Dalian University of Technology), where he was integral in forming the institute's applied physics department.
"In [those days], there was a strong need for re-building everywhere; material and equipment were in short supply; conditions were very poor. As a result of strong efforts, we overcame various difficulties and made the applied physics department a pioneering success. Within a year, we developed our own test equipment and established two general physics laboratories with a combined capacity of 130 students and the ability to conduct 30 types of physics experiments."
Wang was then assigned to establish the Chinese Academy of Sciences Instrument Laboratory in Changchun in 1951 to meet the country's need for precision optical instruments.
"I was very confident about the founding of the [institute] at the time. To undertake pioneering development work, even though the fields were not exactly my specialty, felt a little strange at the beginning, but it was very easy to understand the key problems in those fields using basic physics principles. To develop a new field, the first thing is to understand the key scientific knowledge involved in those interconnected areas, which made it possible for me to utilize area experts and develop new talent."
Wang was named the director of the institute when the facility officially became the Changchun Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics in 1958,and he led the university for more than 30 years.
"As a result of the collective planning and efforts by everyone, it was gradually developed into a cradle of new talents and an important base for applied optics and optical engineering research and development in China," says Wang. "These achievements during the late 1950s and early 1960s meant that [the institute] had mastered the basics of optical engineering, design, and processes, and started to move from copying others to a level of self design and manufacturing."
Indeed, the institute (now known as the Changchun University of Science and Technology) experienced numerous breakthroughs including China's first batch of optical glass, its first electron microscope, and its first laser. The institution also contributed to the development of many new research centers and universities around the country in all areas of optics and photonics.
Of all Wang's technical accomplishments, however, it was during these early years of the institute that he worked on a large research project, one which Wang names among his most satisfying.
"In the early 1960s, shooting range large precision optical tracking video-theodolite was a very precise and complex instrument. At the time, only a few countries with advanced technology were capable of designing and developing such an instrument. Our capability was low then, but our country needed it. So I and researchers at Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics, and Physics worked together and successfully completed this incredible task. The success of the [instrument] marked the beginning of our own research and development of large precision measurement instruments in China. It led to the formation of an important high technology field in optical engineering. This was my first time managing a scientific project that involved more than 600 researchers and lasted for six years. Since then I have managed and completed many scientific projects, some of them were even more difficult, but none of them gave me the same level of excitement and happiness."
Strengthening China's High Technology
From there Wang went to Beijing in 1983 and became the director of the Center for Space Science and Technology. He was elected a member of the International Academy of Space Navigation in 1986.
That same year, Wang, along with three other scientists and academicians, Ganchang Wang, Fangyun Chen, and Jiachi Yang, recommended a strategic plan to accelerate high technology development. The "863 High Technology Plan" was quickly approved by the government and created large programs in biotechnology, information technology, advanced defense technology, automation technology, energy technology, and new materials. This led to a new burgeoning of high technology work in China that continues today.
"China currently has a relatively large team doing optics and photonics research. In many areas we have reached advanced international levels and have had many breakthroughs," says Wang, though he believes that China needs to further strengthen its optics and photonics industry to remain competitive.
In 1992, Wang and five other members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences proposed the creation of a separate engineering academy, and two years later the Chinese Academy of Engineering was founded.
Wang attributes his long and productive career to many things. "During years of practical experience, I believe one's fortune is a result of many subjective and objective occurrences. Taking advantage of opportunities, having insight into opportunities, seizing opportunities, creating opportunities, all played important roles in my career."
He also credits his family, his mentors, and the work of his fellow colleagues. "As part of my experience, I understand deeply that people, as masters in moving society forward, must actively change the world on the basis of understanding the objective world. I also realize, due to the limitations of one's specialty, the ability of a single person is limited. The completion of important undertakings depends on collective wisdom and effort."
SPIE would like to acknowledge the contributions of Liwei Zhou, Yongtian Wang, Jinxue Wang, and Wei Gao, without whose help this article would not have been possible.
SPIE, CAST Present Optics Awards
SPIE and the China Association of Science & Technology (CAST) teamed up to award the 2006 SciTech Prize as part of the 21st China Adolescents Science and Technology Innovation Contest (CASTIC). Five prizes were awarded for best projects in which students apply optics principles and/or engineering technologies.
Winners received $250 USD, a one-year membership to SPIE, and eligibility to apply for a scholarship in Optical Science and Engineering.
The 2006 winners are:
Zhan Chao for "New type display system based on rotation reflective mirror;"
Li Shuhua for "Reading lamp for health and energy-saving;"
Xiao Tianxue, for "Intelligentized bus station indicator;"
Yu Jun, Liu Shuoqi, and Feng Bo for "Preparation of an optical catalyzed strip lamp;"
and Ye Shen, Zhao Yixin, and Zhong Haoyuan for "Multi-functional intelligentized detectable & treatable apparatus of room air pollution."
CAST is a non-profit, non-governmental organization of Chinese scientific and technological workers, consisting of 167 national natural science societies and 31 provincial branches as well as city and county-level branches across China.
Erin M. Schadt, SPIE Professional Managing Editor