Tag Archives: China

An Old NY Times Article on New China

A perfect storm of computer trouble (ok, maybe not perfect, but pretty darn good) has kept me from finishing any new articles, though this should come to an end this week. But while waiting for things to improve, I’ve been pointing your attention (here and here) to various signs that China, which is investing heavily in science and engineering, is catching up to the U.S. and its political and economic allies. The course I taught earlier this month, in which I gave an introduction to particle physics and to the Higgs field and particle, was followed by a couple of lectures by an economist teaching at Williams College, and he pointed me to one other article that I had not been aware of. This one is from the New York Times; I can’t vouch for its accuracy, and I don’t know anything about the main authors (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher), so… buyer beware. The article has to do with the quintessential modern company: Apple.

Let me quote from the article, to pique your interest:

It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.

In China, it took 15 days.

Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.

“We shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers,” a current Apple executive said. “The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.”

Of course, I’m cherry-picking out of a long article.  While these quotations do capture its dominant thread, that thread is woven together with several others.  I certainly don’t pretend to have the solution to the multi-faceted problems that it explores.  But I do think it is important that citizens of the U.S. and its friends  not have their heads in the sand, pretending nothing  is changing.   China isn’t just a huge, cheap, unskilled labor force; it also has a growing, highly-skilled labor pool, able already to out-compete its U.S. counterparts.  This is not an accident.  The Chinese government is making good choices.  Perhaps the experts in China have learned from South Korea; anyone ever heard of Samsung?  If you think all Samsung does is copy Apple’s phones, your head is in the sand.  Look it up.

We live in a world dominated by science, engineering and technology.  If we lose our edge in these areas, we may, in the long term, find ourselves no longer important players in that world, with economic and political costs that could be very high indeed.

How Chinese Children Are Learning Physics

While we’re on the subject of China… The US has had space stations for decades, and people here now show limited interest, barely caring that the US currently has no rocket that can carry people to space.  Now China has its own rockets and space station, and, with plenty of excitement and national pride, is putting them to good use.

Yesterday, some 60 million Chinese children watched a presentation and discussion from space, involving astronaut Wang Yaping and a Beijing classroom, on basic physics principles: mass versus weight, gyroscopic motion, etc.

I hope she managed to explain that there is gravity in space…

Note Added: The full lecture, with English voice-over, is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUAuZnpoZ58.  Thank you, Yan Wenbin.

Science Past and Future, on Diverse Continents

Today, two articles that I found especially interesting and that I recommend to you:

China’s Tianhe-2 retakes fastest supercomputer crownA China-based supercomputer has leapfrogged rivals to be named the world’s most powerful system.

This article caught my eye because I think it highlights the degree to which China is rapidly catching up with Europe, the United States and Japan on certain technologies that matter a great deal.  China, unlike the US, which has been generally cutting its scientific spending since around 2000, is putting a tremendous amount of its money into science and engineering, aiming to surpass the world’s current technology leaders. Though they’re still making their way forward, their efforts are starting to pay off.  Since supercomputers are widely used in developing new technology (e.g., simulating novel aircraft), leadership in supercomputers, should they attain it, will have many benefits for the Chinese economy and military.  Lest you think they are merely copying what others have already done, you should make sure to read the last half of the article. Will it take another Sputnik moment to make anti-scientific politicians properly nervous about the cost of falling behind?

The second article of interest was this one (though the headline is a bit overstated…)

Roman Seawater Concrete Holds the Secret to Cutting Carbon Emissions:  Berkeley Lab scientists and their colleagues have discovered the properties that made ancient Roman concrete sustainable and durable

This great story evokes the tragic romance of knowledge lost for centuries — along the lines of the Stradivarius violins that no violin maker today can match. And it weaves several interesting strands.  First is the fact that modern concrete begins to fall apart in seawater in half a century, while the Romans managed to make a concrete that can survive seawater for two millenia.  How did they do it?  

Well, that’s the second interesting part: researchers claim to have figured it out, using one of the most modern of scientific techniques — flashes of ultraviolet or X-ray light, emitted by high-energy electrons traveling at nearly light-speed, in a particle accelerator (the Advanced Light Source). The Advanced Light Source is located at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in the hills above the university we call “Berkeley” (officially the University of California at Berkeley).

The third interesting thing: the researchers learned that the Romans’ concrete, made mainly from lime (from limestone) and volcanic ash (pulverized rock created in abundance during any energetic volcanic eruption), used less lime and was formed at much lower temperatures than modern concrete. If modern concrete were replaced (when appropriate and possible) with a similar material, its production would use much less energy. And since concrete production is a notable contributor to overall energy use, this is not a minor effect.  In short, it’s just possible that this could be one of those rare situations where everyone wins: either the Roman concrete, or, more likely, a modern/ancient hybrid, may turn out to be more durable, more fuel-efficient to produce, and perhaps cheaper than the forms of concrete we use today.  

Thank goodness! The US government is still funding some important research!  Oh.  Right.  I guess it should be mentioned that initial funding for this work came from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.  Apparently they have a lot of volcanic ash lying about…