Editor’s note: PEOPLE published in January 2019 gave a special report on "Faces of the Year 2018". It selected and presented 10 important figures of symbolic significance to China in 2018. However, the annual faces of this year in PEOPLE are all women’s for the first time. They are women of phenomenal significance at the national level. ZHANG Miman, an alumnus of CUG and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is the first person of the 10 people presented in in this magazine — she is the scientist of the year. Here is the full text:
Scientist ZHANG Miman: It's only a Night for a Few People
A Late Night in the World
ZHANG Miman thinks it was too noisy in 2018. She complained a lot about it with the people around her, her old friends, her students, even strangers that it was very bustling, but also too noisy in 2018.
This year, ZHANG Miman, an 82-year-old paleontologist, received a lot of applause and praise. In March, UNESCO invited her to attend the ceremony in France and presented her with L'Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards , which is presented to only five women worldwide each year. A few months later, The Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation granted her Science and Technology Achievement Award for her devotion to science. She has been known to the public and attracted the attention of many people since she received the UNESCO award. Meanwhile, Prof. ZHANG delivered speeches as acknowledgement in a couple of foreign languages. Astounded by her profound knowledge, many people called her “master” out of respect.
People suddenly perceived the existence of a great scientist and her outstanding achievements in the field of paleontology just as they discovered rare and precious things. In the past 60 years, Prof. ZHANG has been working quietly day after day in the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology next to the busiest street in the Second Ring of Beijing.
ZHANG is almost the only Chinese expert that knows Palaeozoic fish most. Most paleontologists study fish with a time range of several millions of years, while ZHANG has studied fish with the time span of hundreds of millions of years. Moreover, she has made solid and rigorous discoveries in every field of Palaeozoic fish, which is extremely rare worldwide.
ZHANG served as president of the International Paleontological Association in the last century and won the Romer-Simpson Lifetime Achievement Award granted by the International Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in 2016. She is not only an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but also a foreign academician of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. She was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the Graduate School of the American Museum of Natural History. She was the third Chinese who was awarded an honorary doctorate degree of science of the University of Chicago, following only Hu Shi and paleographer Qiu Xigui.
So far, many paleontology species in the world including an extinct Palaeozoic fish, a dinosaur found in Jehol, China, and the oldest known bird of Ornithuromorpha have been named after ZHANG to show respect for her.
Miao Desui, a paleontologist, a professor at the University of Kansas in the United States and a coworker with ZHANG Miman, recalled often what Einstein said to physicist Max Planck in celebration of his 60th birthday when speaking of ZHANG. Einstein said that Planck was the person who was loved by angels of science, and he thought Planck was eccentric, silent and alone. What led Planck to science were a desire for the pure scientific truth and a pursuit for inner peace in the hustle and bustle instead of fame and vanity.
“Einstein said that there are such few pure scientists as Planck in the field of science. Similarly, in our country, there are few pure scientists like ZHANG” Miao Desui told PEOPLE, “Although she is famous among peers worldwide, few ordinary people in China know her. She doesn't care about fame and fortune.”
ZHANG had no interests in becoming a spotlight, so she always found excuses to refuse all media. Only when speaking of fish, she suddenly became interested and showed visitors around her office. In the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, many rooms were like warehouses stuffed with a large number of fossils, such as tiger teeth, lion skulls, dinosaur egg specimens. But ZHANG’s office was so tidy that every specimen is neatly arranged in different categories, and even the stationery on her desk was almost in a straight line. She excitedly took out specimen boxes to tell the stories of palaeozoic fish— such as Youngolepis from 410 million years ago, mesomyzon mengae from 125 million years ago, and Wu Xianwen fish with extremely thick bones from 3.7 million years ago, just like introducing her old friends.
In the world of Paleozoic fish, a year is not measured within 365 days, but in terms of the 4.6 billion years (time is not measured by one year or one day, and the Earth’s history of 4.6 billion years are considered) . If we see the Earth’s history as the first year of human history, it was not until mid-March that the earliest signs of life appeared on Earth, and in early December large swamps and forests existed. Dinosaurs dominated the planet in mid-December, but it did not last long as they perished on December 26. Until midnight on December 31, human beings came into existence, so Rome ruled the western world only for five seconds in such time scale. ZHANG has explored the mystery of many fishes which lived through December while it is difficult for many scholars to make such achievements.
For ZHANG, what fascinated her all her life was the world of evolution. It seemed that many lives of the distant times were reproduced when she looked at the fossils. But in fact, she was the only one in her office. She experienced bustle and loneliness at the same time.
The First Fish
During the field investigation, it was difficult to find out that ZHANG Miman was an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She would do little things regardless of cost. And she was the one who undertook many projects all by herself. Until now, she has repaired many specimens alone, which takes her a lot of time and energy. It took the whole night for synchrotron radiation scanning of specimens because the scanning machine had to be restarted every 20 minutes. Many people would ask assistants to do it, but ZHANG Miman always did it by herself. At that time, she was 70 years old.
What ZHANG Miman focuses on is to unveil the remote history. No one has ever witnessed the scene, so people can only infer what may happen at that time from trace in fossils. Therefore, all judgments must be made very carefully. One researcher may be the first person to know this creature, or the first one to destroy it in the history hundreds of millions of years .
It is supposed that fish may have played a key role in Earth’s evolution that lasts for billions of years: They could only live in water for nearly 100 million years since the birth of vertebrates. It wasn’t until 370 million years ago that a group of fish decided to leave the sea and climb onto land to start a new life. Since then they have been called quadruped. And one of the distant relatives is human race.
More amazingly, there is evidence for this. In 1938, a strange fish was caught from the Indian Ocean, which was very big, with a length similar to that of a man. With flesh and bones in its fins, like the limbs of a quadruped, the fish swam more like a quadruped paddling through the water than a fish. It was called latimeria - a kind of actinistians that lived 410 million years ago. Paleontologists have long believed that it was extinct with dinosaurs 70 million years ago. However, in fact, this kind of fish survived the natural selection at a depth of hundreds of meters in the deep sea, becoming a “living fossil” for research and study.
In the eyes of paleontologists, the human race is a distant relative of the fish. Until now, we still have their traces —we inherit a long and tortuous laryngeal nerve from the fish and the branchial cleft disappears before the fetus’s birth just like the fish. The main bones of the back and wrists are evolved from aquatic organisms. Therefore, we may suffer back pain and sore wrists after walking or typing for a long time, because our fish ancestors did not do these things.
So, how did the first fish climb onto the land? What happened after the fish got out of the world of water? How did it breathe, support its body and survive? What was the land like at that time if backward reasoning on it? Will the ups and downs that it has experienced in evolution happen to us?
These are the ultimate propositions that ZHANG Miman and her peers are interested in. What all paleontologists know about the distant past together makes a complex evolutionary tree of life that stretches to this day. The closer we get to the roots of the evolutionary tree, the closer we get to the fundamental proposition of human origin: who were we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? (who are we, where do we come from and where are we going?)
In order to answer these propositions as accurately as possible, ZHANG Miman has devoted all her life. Whether in the past or now, when she can do her best, she has never been stingy with her strength. At the beginning of her work, in order to find out the details of the Mesozoic fish fossils found in Zhejiang, she took them with her to visit the then famous fish experts one by one at the weekend for advice.
Her best-known research is on the Wu Xianwen fish, a rare fish characterized by exceptionally large bones which are thicker than human fingers and leave little space to grow flesh. Wu Feixiang, who took part in the study, said, "Things about such a special fish could have been told long ago, since we had complete specimens and detailed morphological anatomy. But in addition to the traditional methods of observation, Zhang specially took the specimen abroad for CT. She mastered the whole scientific information of the fish to the utmost and to a very perfect degree, and only then did she start to discuss it. In explaining this thick -bone fish, she found a similar fossil in the Mediterranean region. But she still felt unassured and went to look for the reverse evidence. She discussed with many non-paleontological experts whether this thick bone is pathological or natural. She didn't want to publish it until she had complete confidence ."
Strict scientific attitudes may be a family tradition. ZHANG Miman's father, Zhang Zonghan, a pioneer of Chinese physiology, studied at the School of Medicine, University of Chicago with the Boxer Indemnity and returned home after receiving his doctorate degree. He participated in the establishment of the Department of Biology at East China Normal University and was the first to introduce Pavlov's theory to China. When explaining the nervous system, even during the Second Sino-Japanese War, he would go into the stream to fish for experimental materials by himself.
Miao Desui recalled that the old man in charge of the Journal of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology at that time often praised ZHANG Miman's contributions. At that time the papers were all handwritten and transcribed word by word on squared manuscript paper. There were often tens of thousands of words in a paper and most people's manuscripts would be slightly modified. Only ZHANG Miman's manuscripts, even if a draft, was neat from beginning to end. Even if there was an error in the last line of a page, she would transcribe the whole page again.
Zhang's students said that she had both courtesy and bravery. She is a modest lady from a respectable family, but she also has the courage to challenge others. In a close-up of her by Nature magazine, a colleague told a story in the 1950s when, as a student representative, she led an expedition to dangerous areas in Kazakhstan. When the hotel refused to accommodate the Chinese, she pounded the table, argued with the receptionist, asked for admission without flinching, and repeatedly shouted, "I can pay! I have money!" Finally, they got the room they deserved.
When she was in college, the subject was regarded as the "eyes of the motherland" and she was sent to the Soviet Union to judge the strata from fish fossils and find oil and minerals for the motherland. But when they returned home, the subject became "the vase of the motherland" in the political turmoil.
Miao Desui was the first graduate student admitted to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology after the "Cultural Revolution". At that time, Wu Rukang, a world famous paleoanthropologist gave them a welcome forum. Mr. Wu disillusioned everyone: "This is not a popular subject. It is pure academic research and receives little attention . So if you want to do this subject, you must be able to endure the loneliness. People regard it as a subject in good times. But in bad times, you must be able to sit still and insist on doing it." This has become a core proposition for that generation of scientists — what is the pleasure of being a scientist out of public attention?
Facts have proved that the most fascinating thing is the original proposition, the story of the first fish. “The greatest pleasure of this discipline is nothing more than knowing”, said Qiu Zhanxiang, a paleozoologist who stayed in the Soviet Union with ZHANG Miman, "Science is a very big thing. It's a creature that my generation didn't know what it was, and a little bit of what we know is enough for me. Everything you know can be the basis for someone else to continue in the future. Snowballing like this, the science is advanced."
In this way, paleontologists are still rushing to the wild again and again, striking the earth with geologist’s hammers and looking for fish locked in rocks. Hard work or luck, everyone is waiting for an opportunity to make a little scientific progress and unlock the key node of the evolutionary tree that is closest to the root of the tree — which was the first fish to climb from the sea to the land?
Here was a chance for her. In 1980, 46-year-old ZHANG Miman visited Swedish Museum of Natural History again. At that time, the Swedish School was still in its heyday and Sweden was called "Mecca for zoologists”. Her teachers were the three most important representatives of the Swedish School and the absolute authority of early vertebrate research.
In particular, Jarvik, her tutor, used the most advanced methods of continuous grinding and wax modeling at that time to study the complete fossil of Eusthenopteron for 25 years, making it known as "the fossil vertebrate of which the most details are known in history”. It was also because of Jarvik's monograph that the argument that "quadruped originated from crossopterygii" has become an accepted point of view in textbooks. He believed that the crossopterygii were the most advanced animals on land 350 million years ago. They had internal nostrils and could breathe air without gills. This was a prerequisite for fish to land from the sea, so it was probably the first fish to climb onto the land from the water, evolving from amphibians and reptiles all the way to mammals and eventually humans. However, criticism began to arise at that time, believing that the conclusion deduced by the Swedish School was only speculation. But the conclusion was almost taken as a set fact, which in turn would seriously affect the understanding of the group structure of human ancestors.
ZHANG Miman brought the fossil of Youngolepis found in Yunnan Province, which is a Chinese crossopterygii 410 million years ago. She wanted to study it by continuous grinding. Jarvik helped her with all his strength and showed her the article refuting him. He hoped to prove his hypothesis with the help of the new fossil materials brought by ZHANG Miman.
She embarked on an extraordinarily arduous project. The continuous grinding removes 50 microns of the fossil at a time, which is only one-twentieth of a millimeter. After photographing the ground section, Zhang zoomed in and drew the skeletal structure of the section, then cut the beeswax slices carefully according to the section structure. Zhang repeated the above until the whole fossil structure was completely ground, and then piled up all wax slices in sequence to form the complete structure of the fossil. In principle, this is completely consistent with modern 3D printing.
This was the most accurate way to study the internal structure of fossils before the advent of modern CT technology. However, it was time-consuming and demanding, and only a handful of people in the world could grasp and accomplish it. In those days, ZHANG Miman often slept only four or five hours a day, because it took 10 hours to draw even a slightly complicated picture. To get a clear view of the specimen, she also needed to paint the fossil surface with toxic xylene which could make people dizzy. In this state, she ground the skull of the 2.8cm-sized Youngolepis into more than 540 cross-sectional pieces and made a twentyfold enlarged model in two years.
However, the result was unexpected. According to her tutor's hypothesis, Youngolepis should have inner nostrils, which is a prerequisite for living on land and breathing air. “I was shocked. I felt strange while grinding, and I was surprised to find that what was supposed to come out didn't come out." ZHANG Miman said, "At first, it was assumed to be a rhipidistia (note: a kind of crossopterygii, Eusthenopteron is actually rhipidistia) with an inner nostril and an outer nostril. This was what I wrote in my 1966's abstract during a conference, but it didn't have the inner nostril."
Her tutor was dissatisfied with her, for she opposed him. He kept complaining to ZHANG Miman, "Enough, you have done enough, you should not do it anymore. “He told ZHANG Miman that this is a "Damned fish"! It is not an easy thing to have objections. What's more, what she challenged was the absolute authority that almost everyone revered. ZHANG Miman said she was distressed and hesitant at that time. "Some of my friends thought I should stick to it while others just waited to see what I would do." There was a researcher who worked togetherwith her, and "He agreed with me when he was with me and objected to my opinion when Jarvik was present." Being in a foreign land, she could only write to her father and narrated her predicament, "I am bearding the lion in his den."
Her father, a fellow scholar, encouraged her and taught her to look for facts. ZHANG Miman carefully compared the specimens used as the basis by her tutor and the related specimens repaired by British and American paleoichthyologists and found a nuance —in the specimens described by Jarvik, the part of the inner nostril was not completely preserved, suggesting that the tutor's textbook conclusion was "just an imagination, not a fact."
"Jarvik is a very good person. He has helped me a lot. At every Swedish festival, he would invite me home. He always drove me to his house and sent me back to the museum after having dinner in his house, for he knew that I had to continue my work. I think he is a kind-hearted person. But in terms of the academic issue, I can't agree with him." Recalling this experience, ZHANG Miman told PEOPLE, "I respect Jarvik very much. I am still referring to his books when I am doing my research. He has done a lot of work. But I don't think there is anything wrong with me. I have seen it and others will see it in the future. This is the fact."
March 31, 1982 was the day when ZHANG Miman defended her doctoral thesis. More people than usual came to attend the defense. At that time, many famous paleoichthyologists took their own specimens and traveled from other countries to Stockholm to meet ZHANG Miman.
In her paper entitled The Skull of Youngolepis, A kind of Crossopterygii, in Lower Devonian in Yunnan Province, Southwest China, she explicitly pointed out that the results of more than 540 continuous ground slices showed that Youngolepis had no internal nostrils. Rosen, a famous American ichthyologist, said in a letter to ZHANG Miman, "this discovery has shaken the traditional theory". Dr. Philippe Janvier, from Geology Department of University of Paris VI (Université Paris VI), said at the defense, "The questions she raised will be quoted in various articles and textbooks for decades."
This is the most important objection in the history of paleontology. Inner nostrils were needed for fish to land and breathe, but no nostrils were found in Youngolepis, a kind of crossopterygii. This directly shook the traditional judgment that terrestrial quadruped originated from crossopterygii and changed the textbook thereafter. ZHANG Miman won her doctor's degree and won the world reputation for Chinese scientists.
More than 30 years later, young paleontologists Zhu Min and Lu Jing took over ZHANG Miman's research. New techniques such as CT scans and synchrotron radiation can now be relied upon to accurately recover the skulls of fossil paleofishes in a relatively short period of time. For comparative study, Lu Jing scanned Youngolepis fossils with CT and compared the results reconstructed by the computer with the model manually made by ZHANG Miman more than 30 years ago. To their surprise, there was little difference even in the most subtle places.
Moreover, the continuous ground slices made by ZHANG Miman clearly and delicately reconstructed the tiny details of neurocranium, encephalocoele, blood vessels in encephalocoele and even nerve pathways of Youngolepis. This is the accurate information that even the most advanced CT methods and digital recovery cannot obtain at present and it is the ultimate reproduction that even the most sophisticated machines cannot achieve. Even after more than 30 years, one can see at a glance why even absolute authority had to be convinced.
On a recent trip to Sweden, Lu Jing borrowed waxes from the Swedish School at that time. When she saw the grinding models of the last century for the first time, she was shocked greatly. Although it was a primitive and laborious method, due to human input, every scientific detail of the only 2.8cm-sized fossil was stretched to an extreme state. "I admire her very much and was excited. The science it showed had an artistic beauty, and it gave me a feeling of suffocating and awe-inspiring trembling (and it left me breathless and trembling in awe)."
Partners in Scientific Research
When talking about this famous objection in the history of science, ZHANG Miman sat alone in front of her microscope. Time has taken away one scientific partner after another. During Youngolepis thesis, the American paleontologist who supported her most died of brain cancer. Another Swedish leading scholar Shi Tianxiu who talked with her about fish became ill at the end of his life, forgot all the fossil stories he had witnessed, and was no longer interested in anything. In his last hours, they never talked about fish again.
The only old friend in the room who witnessed that period of time was another skull fossil of Youngolepis in the specimen box. Before his father died, the clearest memory of him was still that his daughter was a “person who dares to beard on the lion in his den”. Although his tutor, Jarvik, was unhappy, he occasionally sent her cards at Christmas while he was still alive.
She said the biggest impression she got from the incident was that, in science, it would be great if her students agreed with her, but if anyone opposed her, I could also be very happy. "After all, we've gone one step further; we've gone one step further as human beings, to understand the world."
In the past few decades, she has influenced many "step-forward discoveries" of human beings. After making a breakthrough in the study of Paleozoic fishes, she also studied fossils of Mesozoic fishes from China and Cenozoic fossils from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. With her encouragement, the research team, mainly composed of young people in their 30s, began to study the Jehol biota in western Liaoning Province, making China the focus of international paleontology research.
In the autumn of 2005, a "honorary symposium" was organized at the Annual Meeting of Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). Each paper presented at the symposium was dedicated to ZHANG Miman, who was honored for her academic contributions by scientists from all over the world, including the world's top vertebrate Paleontologists, academicians from academies of sciences of various countries, and curators from the world's most famous natural history museum. So far, only a handful of world-renowned scientists have been honored with this distinction at such an international symposium.
At the symposium, Professor Thomson, former dean of Yale Graduate School and dean of Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, praised, "40 years ago, a young female scholar ZHANG Miman from China brought Devonian fish fossils from Yunnan Province to Swedish Museum of Natural History, overturning the traditional theory of tetrapod origin!" Professor Jiang Lang from West Australian Museum said, "I didn't plan to attend the annual meeting this year. There were too many meetings to attend and more things to do. But as soon as I heard that there was an honorary symposium for ZHANG Miman, I would come anyway — she is so important to us!"
Professor Schultz, who worked with ZHANG Miman in Sweden, had just retired from his position as curator of Natural History Museumin Berlin, Germany. He shared the experience of the Chinese female scientist in his eyes with the title of "Ode to an Unbreakable Spirit".
The Swedish School is famous for its hard work in the world. When cleaning in the morning, cleaners often found researchers who stayed up all night in the laboratory. Here, ZHANG Miman was also known as "a Chinese woman who did not sleep." The two ferocious-looking big dogs that the museum's midnight patrol took with them would bark all the way upstairs at the beginning. Later, seeing her around night after night, they became familiar with her and became not only quiet but also friendly. Sometimes, people left flowers on ZHANG Miman's desk to honor her. "She was virtuous and spoke softly and slowly, but she acted decisively and tenaciously, which is really admirable", so commented Professor Boult from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago after the symposium.
Such scenes surprised Rex Dalton, a science correspondent of the top academic journal Nature. "I've seen a lot of similar scenes at international conferences on various disciplines, but it's the first time for me to see that academician ZHANG Miman has been so highly respected and admired by so many colleagues today. After all, there are many examples showing that ‘two of a trade did never agree’. This is really incredible."
The symposium was like a lively gathering of friends. After the presentations ended, the scientific partners still got together and talked for a long time. ZHANG Miman also received many gifts from colleagues in the Swedish Museum of Natural History. In the place where the "famous objection" took place, Swedish colleagues told her, " For the past 40 years, we have always regarded ZHANG Miman as an indispensable member of us and we are proud of her. We hope that ZHANG Miman can come home frequently in the next 40 years."
Until now, she still remembers the last card Jarvik sent her. It says a song everyone will sing together at Christmas in Sweden, a tribute to Lucia, the messenger who brought light to the dark world. Years later, it was precisely this ode that Jarvik sent to his student: "The night treads heavily around yards and dwellings; in places unreached by sun, the shadows brood. Then in our dark house, she comes with lighted candles, Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia."
Paleontologist in the 21st Century
On Zhang's 70th birthday, her student Zhu Min dedicated a new kind of fish to his tutor. He named it "Chenxiao Miman fish". He said that the fish was very much like his teacher. It is the most primitive Actinopterygii and plays an important role in evolution. It is located at the key bifurcation point of the evolutionary tree and has influenced countless fish later.
"For scientists, if your discoveries and observations can leave a mark on the entire human knowledge system, then I think you don’t idle away your time. For example, Youngolepis studied by teacher Zhang has left a mark on the entire human knowledge system, which is her achievement. We will have many important discoveries in the future, but she will stay at that key node." said Zhu Min.
In fact, ZHANG Miman brought more than one key node. In the 1980s, she served as director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. Miao Desui said that she was a leader who dared to act and bear responsibility. The Sino-Canadian dinosaur project she facilitated at that time was a rare large-scale international scientific and technological cooperation project in China at that time. "She made a decision about such a big deal alone. At that time, the leaders of Canadian foundation that supported the scientific research had a full trip schedule in China. Zhang was invited to a private plane to negotiate about the project. Due to the limitations on communications in those years, she could neither ask any anyone for instructions nor have time to report to the superior departments. She agreed on the spot." It might not be approved by superior departments. But she knew what it meant to science itself and she dared to seize this rare opportunity. Later, a large number of dinosaur specimens were discovered during the project and a group of young researchers were trained, greatly promoting the research of vertebrate paleontology in China .
She has recently been studying the small teeth in the throat of cyprinid fishes, especially grass carp. It is hard to achieve sensational results in studying these small teeth. It is almost impossible to publish the results in Nature. However, these small teeth which are less than 3mm in size make her curious: grass carp like places with abundant aquatic plants, but why are grass carp fossils found in places like Inner Mongolia and Gansu? In Liaohe River Basin, grass carp fossils can be found but no living grass carp can be found. What happened here? When taking a closer look at the chewing surfaces of the small teeth, we can find that the grass carp teeth had small hooks long time ago. That is the tooth feature of fish eating worms, which means that this kind of fish may not have been herbivorous . So what did they experience and why did they become like this?
"Science often starts with something small. If you study a lot on the things that are small and boring to most people, you might find something great. But if no one comes up with an idea, no one's going to solve it in the future." said ZHANG Miman.
"Zhang is very pure and does things that make her happy. However, in the current situation, it is hard to talk about many things. If a young person is allowed to do such things, he may not be able to support himself in the future due to current evaluation system. He can indeed solve a problem but it is difficult for him to publish a paper." Zhu Min said, "In the current evaluation system, it is a big challenge for scientists to keep their purity."
Paleontologists living in 2018 face a different challenge. In the study of Paleozoic fish, Zhu Min's research team is a world-class star team. The research results have repeatedly refreshed human's understanding of evolution, but even he will be defeated by reality.
The site where ZHANG Miman discovered the fossil of Youngolepis in the last century has been visited by the travel writer and geographer of the Ming dynasty Xu Xiake and Ding Wenjiang, the most famous geologist of the Republic of China. The small town in southwest China, which appears in numerous geological records, is now about to be swallowed up by the ever-expanding urbanization. Standing on the hilltop covered with 400 million-year-old fish fossils, people can see the newly built industrial park and factories and farmers' resettlement houses on the other side of the road and less than 500m away. On one visit, he found that the front of the fossil site was filled with domestic garbage, and the nearby people used it as a garbage dump. Zhu Min was anxious. This is a world-famous fossil site listed in Science magazine. "We will not allow it to be destroyed in our generation. What if humans search for their ancestors one day in the future and find garbage? How could we allow this to happen?"
In recent years, he has devoted more time to giving speeches to local governments, preparing PowerPoint slides about what fossils are, persuading them not to build industrial parks here but to apply for world-class natural heritage sites. Each time he would end with bold letters in the largest size: "Science and technology can bring about GDP." He was only trying to impress the main leaders. But often when the speeches were over, the first persons who excitedly came to see him for business cards were officials from the local bureau of investment promotion. They took a fancy to the PPT saying were attracted by the statement that "cultural heritage boosts house prices" in the slides and invited the paleontologist to deliver speeches at Conferences on Investment Promotion.
Not many people can really understand the fun and significance of paleontology. Before the news that "ZHANG Miman won the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards", the news related to the keyword paleontology was: there was only one person in the graduation photo of the paleontology major of Peking University.
Compared with solving a problem scientifically, Zhu Min said that such a problem is logically much simpler, but it is not easy to correct. He can only turn to the last resort. In the summer of 2018, Zhu Min invited ZHANG Miman to return to the Youngolepis Fossil Site from 30 years ago. Before she went, Zhu Min deliberately set up several signs next to the fossil site saying "No Littering"to prevent Zhang from being sad after seeing this.
In 2018, ZHANG Miman also had to adapt to the environment. In the summer of 2018, ZHANG Miman, a person who never accepted any title, promised to serve as honorary director of a school near the fossil site so as to protect a 400 million-year-old history with the help of her fame in this year. She didn't want to stop and gave herself a pseudonym "Shang Neng Xi", because she liked its meaning in the Chinese ancient poem , "Who says an old man can’t be young again? The water in front of the door can still flow westward!"
Night only for a Few People
The noisy 2018 was finally coming to an end. The TV station invited her to talk about winning the UN award in France on the show. Someone at the scene asked why she didn't take the trophy when she stepped down. The old lady answered, “Becasue I am old and forgetful, and I forgot to take it.” The director cut off the recording and asked her again, “Why didn't take the trophy? Think about it.”
This part was not broadcast finally. The old lady was reluctant to give other answers. "They wanted me to say that I didn't take it because I was indifferent to fame and wealth." Sitting in the room where the crowd left, ZHANG Miman was still a little unconvinced. At the age of 82, she is still the woman who "dares to beard the lion in his den". This principle has never been changed. "I didn't say what they wanted me to say. I was really old and forgot to take it. I was telling the truth."
Having witnessed the life changes of fish in hundreds of millions of years, she also became more and more aware of the imprint of time on her. She is more likely to feel tired. Bright flashes can hurt her eyes. Even sitting in a room, she often suffers from atrial fibrillation and sudden cardiac arrest. She is unable to visit the fossil site on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau any more. She has to visit a doctor every week for regular cardiac examination. Finally, aging is a new fact she has to face, and she can no longer do everything by herself. Now she will ask her colleagues to help carry the backpack full of books. But she will also quietly apologize to them, "I can't carry this. I have to ask you for help. I'm sorry."
The people who came to interview and photograph crowded in her small room, and she repeatedly said, "It doesn't matter if you use these photos or not. I don't deserve to be on the cover. There are still so many people in our country that are worth learning from. They are the real masters. I am only doing the smallest thing. "
After sending away the visitors who came one after another, she wanted to go back to the "tiny little world". Each tooth in the throat of grass carp is less than 3mm. ZHANG Miman put them one by one in a small transparent box and neatly arranged them beside her microscope.
"When you do scientific research, what you do in your lifetime is only part of it. Your research may succeed or fail. I appreciate this process very much." She likes the story of Zhu Yuanding, an ichthyologist. His monograph on cyprinid fishes was published in 1931. Although it has been so long ago, people still need to read this monography. "This is his contribution to mankind." "Most of the work that scientists do for mankind is a stepping-stone and little of it is conspicuous."
She knows that all the noise and excitement will disperse sooner or later and that there is only one thing that remains unchanged in the world — night will come eventually. "I believe that from the perspective of evolution, this species of human will eventually become extinct. We can only live in the world for a lifetime and will never come back. And the length of lifetime differs from individual to individual. I have much less time than you . Maybe I won't wake up tomorrow, so I try my best to enjoy everything now." ZHANG Miman told PEOPLE, "I think it is enough when you have lived, worked hard, and enjoyed everything you have done, have failed or achieved something. It doesn't matter if anyone else admits it or not, perceives it or not, for being known by others depends on many different factors. What matters is that you feel happy."
A few months from now, ZHANG Miman is about to celebrate her 83rd birthday. She is waiting for the fading of excitement in this year, just like waiting for the immature persimmons on the windowsill, the changing teeth of grass carp and other Earth’s secrets hidden in rocks. In the book she gave to her students, she wrote: "Freedom is more important than power, knowledge is more eternal than money, commonness is more precious than fame, and persistence is rarer than cleverness. Let us encourage each other in our endeavors. Miman"
It gets quiet again when the night comes and she is left alone in the room. However, when the secrets in the fossils resurrect, the excitement will return. Just as her student Zhu Min has noted, "Late at night, quietly observing the ancient fish fossils in Yunnan under a microscope, travelling through 400 million years of time, we can imagine that sarcopterygians swim in the ancient sea of southern China and shine with the beautiful blue light. They didn't take refuge in the deep sea. Instead, they were swimming on the seashore or bay, for they were the highest animals on the earth at that time." The lifelong pursuit of paleontologists is this fascinating career that looking into the distant past. This is not a pleasure that everyone can understand. It is a night for only a small number of people. (Written by: Li Feiran)