Former mine manager leads way for amateur scientists

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-8 0:05:18

Zheng Xiaoting examines a dinosaur fossil. Photo: Courtesy of Tianyu Museum of Natural History

In China, people like to say that "a master walks among the people." There is probably no one who epitomizes this saying more than Zheng Xiaoting, a paleontologist with a global reputation who did not even complete middle school.

A low-profile person, Zheng, who is also the curator of the largest dinosaur museum in the world, seldom accepts interviews and mostly keeps away from the public eye. But recently, a discussion on amateur scientists triggered by one such scientist's take on "gravitational waves" put Zheng under the spotlight again. An accomplished scientist himself, Zheng has been dubbed the "strongest amateur scientist" in the country because of his achievements.

While winning widespread recognition, his combination of identities including middle-school graduate, professor, manager of a gold mine and even grass-roots official, has also brought Zheng much controversy over the years.

"I was even questioned in the 1990s when I managed a gold mine and won prizes for my processing technique. Even the New York Times and Time magazine expressed doubts in their articles about me," said Zheng, who eventually agreed to an interview with the Global Times after his usual rejection. "Fortunately, such doubts are dwindling."

Hard to categorize

Though dubbed the "strongest amateur scientist," it is hard to say whether Zheng still falls into that category. On the one hand, Zheng did not finish school due to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and thus has no professional education in paleontology.

But on the other, Zheng has some impressive achievements. He has published more than 10 articles in professional journals such as Science and Nature. In 2011, a type of dinosaur was named Xiaotingia to honor Zheng, who discovered it.

In 2004, as the manager of a gold mine in his hometown of Pingyi, Shandong Province, he invested nearly 400 million yuan ($61.84 million) in building the world's largest museum of dinosaur fossils, Tianyu Museum of Natural History, collecting more than 1,200 dinosaur fossils and about 390,000 paleontological and mineral specimens.

Due to his success, Zheng has been employed as guest professor at Linyi University in Shandong Province and China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Linyi University, honored Zheng with a lifetime professorship and built an institution focusing on paleontological research with Zheng as its head.

Despite all his fame and achievements, Zheng is more excited about finding new things in the field. "I am especially happy when there is a new discovery."

Now in his 60s, Zheng goes to the museum every day to conduct research, and will usually sit examining a fossil or specimen for hours. As an amateur, Zheng said that he had a hard time learning when he started to research minerals and the fossils of insects and birds in 2003.

"I learned by myself, reading books and studying birds, learning how to dissect birds from scratch. It was a period when I sometimes felt mixed up," said Zheng. Fortunately, things changed for the better in 2005, when he started to communicate with researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology.

"I treated them as teachers and learned a lot from them. I'm lucky that they didn't look down on me and treated me equally in terms of academic communication," said Zheng.

Early hobby

Since Zheng's rise to fame, there have been many doubts about his research ability, not only in terms of his qualifications, but also his experience.

In 1969 when he dropped out of school, he took a job in the boiler room of a knitwear mill. Later, as a model worker in the mill, he was raised to the position of secretary of the Party committee for a township in Pingyi county. In 1991, Zheng was transferred to a gold mine in the county, and was put in charge of developing the mine, later becoming its first manager.

During his time there, the mine did well and in 2004, in response to the call from the county government for the mine to diversify its business, Tianyu Museum of Natural History was built according to a proposal from Zheng. It mainly collects fossils and minerals, boosting the local economy through tourism.

People doubt Zheng because before 2009, he had little connection with paleontology or research. In his previous interviews, Zheng explained that he began to pay attention to fossils in the 1990s and to dedicate himself to researching fossils in 2003.

But in the interview with the Global Times, Zheng revealed that his interest in paleontology is actually an extension of the passion for science he has held since his youth. It is just that his previous scientific research failed to attract as much attention as his achievements in researching dinosaurs have.

As Zheng explains, since he started to work at the age of 16, he spent most of his spare time reading books and learning, mostly about mechanical engineering.

When he worked in the boiler room at 18, he already managed to make progress in technical processes that won him the term model worker. Working in the mine later, he also made breakthroughs in recycling gold and reducing the use of cyanide. This research also won Zheng several prizes in science and technology.

"The passion for science and scientific research is in my bones," said Zheng.

Knowledge matters

Pingyi, a small county, seldom attracted attention before, but is now frequently visited by paleontology experts from both China and abroad every year, due to the Tianyu museum.

Though he now focuses on paleontology, Zheng said that what he learned in his spare time about mechanical engineering, or even philosophy, also has subtle influences on his research today. "The influence of knowledge is comprehensive and imperceptible," said Zheng.

He stresses this particularly for amateur scientists who blindly carry out research and hope to make landmark progress in a field overnight.

"Only through knowledge accumulation and thorough understanding can you have your own judgment about a thing. It is important to learn scientific theory and achievements in a field also, because it will save you from repeating old paths," noted Zheng.

To Zheng, most amateur scientists actually like communicating with professionals, but to achieve efficient communication, amateur scientists need to have sufficient knowledge first.

"First of all, you should make yourself qualified to communicate with them professionally," noted Zheng. 

"It is science. It is not something that should be based on imagination."

Newspaper headline: Going pro

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