Enlarge / This picture taken on September 24, 2016 shows the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope in southwestern China's Guizhou province. (credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

During the second season of The Big Bang Theory, the aspiring actress Penny borrows money from Sheldon. Without a second thought, the theoretical physicist urges Penny to reach into a peanut brittle can where he keeps some extra money, and borrow as much as she wants. "This is money I'm not using," Sheldon explains.

Nick Suntzeff, an astronomer at Texas A&M University, recalled this episode when asked why no astronomers had yet taken a lucrative position to run the world's largest radio telescope, in China. The job pays about $1.2 million annually. "Now, that is an exaggeration," Suntzeff said of the TV show. "But I know many astronomers who would do such a thing. They want to be paid well, yes, but the money does not buy you telescope time, or access to supercomputers, or fund postdocs and graduate students."

China has built a staggeringly large instrument in the remote southern, mountainous region of the country called the Five hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST.  The telescope measures nearly twice as large as the closest comparable facility in the world, the US-operated Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Radio telescopes use a large, parabolic dish to collect radio waves from distant sources, such as pulsars and black holes—or even alien civilizations.

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