German astronomer uses supercomputer to see space

By Alanna Albrecht, Guo Xiaohong and Yan Xiaoqing
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, July 17, 2014
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Astrophysicist Rainer Spurzem studies the merger of black holes in the universe and has some good news; the world isn't ending anytime soon.

Rainer Spurzem was received by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 5, 2012.

"These events are extremely powerful but so far away," Spurzem said. He jokingly added, "It's more dangerous to cross the street in Beijing."

Spurzem has been living in Beijing since 2009 when he became a visiting professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 2013 he also became part of China's 1,000 Talent Plan, a recruitment program organized by the Chinese government to attract top talent in different fields from all over the world. Spurzem works with the National Astronomical Observatories (NAO) and Peking University.

He studied physics in Germany and specialized in astronomy.

"I am one of the astronomers who have never professionally looked through a telescope because we are using computers," Spurzem said.

The computational astronomer uses a Lenovo supercomputer to simulate crashes of galaxies, stars and black holes.

"This combination of astronomy and computer science brought me to China," he said.

In 2009, China made a jump in computer technology by selecting 10 institutes to receive grants for a supercomputer. Spurzem now uses the supercomputer at NAO to work with students on numerical computations.

"It is not like a telescope. It is a big machine in an air-conditioned room," Spurzem said. "It's a general facility which has advanced computation and science in our field and has made this place very attractive for people who want to study in that direction."

Now a foreign expert in Beijing, Spurzem has had a long personal relationship with China. After studying Chinese for a year in Germany while at university, he backpacked through China for six weeks and then returned for a two month trip in the mid-1980s. His first professional contact with the country didn't come until 2009.

"I was actually quite happy about this chance now to work here and live here after I have seen how it was in the 80s," Spurzem said.

Rainer Spurzem is working in his supercomputer lab under the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Changes have come in the form of increased space projects and international conferences. His work with the supercomputer in China earned him a hand shake with President Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing on December 5, 2012.

"Development is everywhere, not only in Beijing," Spurzem said.

He said studying abroad and attending international conferences are goals of his "very eager" students. For example, he sets up a workshop with Seoul International University every year for his students to attend.

"The talent of the Chinese students is getting embedded in international collaborations," he said. "When going to China I never lose my international collaborations."

Attracting foreign talent to China, however, can be difficult. Spurzem said the salaries at Peking University are lower than those at other foreign universities.

"One tries to find a solution, and the talent program helps me to attract foreign colleagues," he said. "More like this is needed, especially for Peking University."

Using grant money from the 1,000 Talent Plan, Spurzem recruited the leader of Ukraine's computational astronomy department. He is doing postdoctoral research in Beijing and his students from Kiev often visit.

"This talent program gives me much more freedom to work with my students, to support them for travel and expand our work," Spurzem praised.

Working internationally can be a challenge, but Spurzem said there's nothing fundamentally different about what he does in China compared to Germany.

"It's clear there is some difference with religion and culture, but when it comes to after semester, the professor and his students go have a dinner and some beer, and this is very similar to what I know from my home country," he said with a laugh.


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