Shoucheng Zhang: Moutai and a pos­si­ble No­bel Prize await this Stan­ford sci­en­tist

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By QI­DONG ZHANG in San Fran­cisco kel­lyzhang@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

His Chi­nese col­league at Stan­ford Univer­sity has pre­pared half-a-century-old Moutai, known as China’s na­tional liquor to cel­e­brate his pos­si­ble No­bel Prize nom­i­na­tion “any time.”

Shoucheng Zhang, a J.G. Jack­son and C.J Wood pro­fes­sor of physics at Stan­ford, is a po­ten­tial No­bel Prize can­di­date for his in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized re­search in topo­log­i­cal in­su­la­tors, quan­tum spin Hall ef­fect, spintronics and high tem­per­a­ture su­per­con­duc­tiv­ity. His sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery that was rec­og­nized in 2007 is ranked as one of the top-10 sci­en­tific break­throughs ever, ac­cord­ing to Sci­ence Mag­a­zine.

A con­densed mat­ter the­o­rist, Zhang’s dis­cov­ery means a sin­gle layer of tiny atoms could be the first ma­te­rial to con­duct elec­tric­ity with 100 per­cent ef­fi­ciency at tem­per­a­tures that com­puter chips op­er­ate.

The new ma­te­rial “stanene”, com­bin­ing the Latin name for tin (stan­num) with the suf­fix used in graphene, can be ap­plied widely, in­clud­ing in­creas­ing the speed and low­er­ing the power needs of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of com­puter chips.

Zhang said the dis­cov­ery in­volves a spe­cial class of ma­te­ri­als known as topo­log­i­cal in­su­la­tors, which con­duct elec­tric­ity only on their out­side edges or sur­faces and not through their in­te­ri­ors. When topo­log­i­cal in­su­la­tors are just one atom thick, their edges con­duct elec­tric­ity with 100 per­cent ef­fi­ciency.

“The dis­cov­ery I made in 2006 ba­si­cally says we can make elec­trons to move on de­fined lanes to avoid collisions and dis­si­pa­tion, and, thereby, ex­tend the life of Moore’s Law, which ob­serves that the num­ber of tran­sis­tors on an in­te­grated cir­cuit dou­bles ap­prox­i­mately ev­ery two years. It’s go­ing to mainly rev­o­lu­tion­ize IT and semi­con­duc­tor in­dus­tries, ul­ti­mately be­com­ing a sub­sti­tute for sil­i­con used for cir­cuit struc­tures on our mo­bile phones, and com­put­ers,” said Zhang.

Ac­cord­ing to Zhang, the the­ory and ap­pli­ca­tion of topo­log­i­cal in­su­la­tors might lead to a rev­o­lu­tion­ary de­vel­op­ment in the field of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy by equip­ping mo­bile phones with a level of power that is the equiv­a­lent to the en­tire Google server farm so they do not have to be charged ev­ery day.

“One day in 2010, a friend called to let me know that over 40 mil­lion people came to know my the­ory in­stantly through the ‘Big Bang The­ory’, since the pop­u­lar TV show made an episode based on my dis­cov­ery. I never imag­ined that a sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery could in­stantly reach such a wide au­di­ence world­wide,” Zhang said.

When it comes to a pos­si­ble No­bel Prize, Zhang would rather talk about the ex­pe­ri­ence of dis­cov­ery.

“The best part of life should be the ex­pe­ri­ence it­self, not the goal,” he said. “See­ing that an idea con­ceived from beauty also turned out to be true in Na­ture is per­haps the great­est re­ward for a sci­en­tist like me.”

To­day, Zhang’s re­search still fo­cuses on how ma­te­ri­als can be built from the small­est build­ing blocks of elec­trons and atoms.

“The Greeks pos­tu­lated that ev­ery­thing in the world is com­posed of ba­sic el­e­ments they called atoms. Ever since that time, one part of ba­sic sci­ence looks for the ever smaller build­ing blocks of mat­ter. In the other part of sci­ence, we try to find out how these ba­sic build­ing blocks can fit to­gether to give rise to a won­der­ful com­plex world,” he said.

Zhang is a fel­low of the Amer­i­can Phys­i­cal So­ci­ety and the Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Sci­ences. As an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, he is a for­eign mem­ber of the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences, which en­ti­tles him to of­fer ad­vice to the cen­tral govern­ment.

Other than the Alexan­der von Hum­boldt Re­search Award in 2009, the Johannes Guten­berg Re­search Award in 2010, he re­ceived sev­eral distin­guished awards in the sci­ence field: the Euro­physics Prize in 2010, the Oliver E. Buck­ley Prize in 2012, the Dirac Medal and Prize in 2012 and the Physics Fron­tiers Prize in 2013 for his the­o­ret­i­cal pre­dic­tion of the quan­tum spin Hall ef­fect and topo­log­i­cal in­su­la­tors. Many of the re­cip­i­ents of these prizes were sub­se­quently hon­ored with a No­bel Prize.

Zhang’s in­ter­ests go be­yond sci­ence, and in­clude phi­los­o­phy, po­etry, opera and his­tory. When­ever he trav­els to con­fer­ences, he down­loads on­line classes about the cul­ture and his­tory of the coun­tries to which he is trav­el­ing. But he said the most fas­ci­nat­ing part of life is his stu­dents be­cause they in­spire him and give him new ideas for his re­search.

Many de­scribe Zhang as ‘‘God’s fa­vored one’’ and some call him “a ge­nius.’’

At the age of 15, the prac­ti­cally self-taught Zhang went to Fu­dan Univer­sity in Shang­hai in 1978 and ma­jored in the­o­ret­i­cal physics with­out go­ing to high school.

In that year, the govern­ment started a pro­gram un­der which the top 200 or so stu­dents who had scored the high­est in col­lege ex­ams were sent abroad to study. Af­ter only one se­mes­ter in col­lege, Zhang was sent to Ger­many to study, where in 1983 he re­ceived his bach­e­lor’s de­gree from the Free Univer­sity of Berlin. In 1987 he was awarded a Phd from the State Univer­sity of New York at Stony Brook in New York.

At Stony Brook, Zhang’s men­tor and role model was No­bel Prize win­ner Cheng-Ning Yang.

“He has taught me that sci­ence, like any­thing else, uti­lizes sim­plic­ity to reach the ul­ti­mate state of beauty. In po­etry we use the sim­plest words to ex­press our com­plex emo­tions and deep thoughts, and in the­o­ret­i­cal physics we use the sim­plest equa­tion to de­scribe the world from the small­est atom to the vast uni­verse. In this sense, sci­ence and art share the same aes­thetic as­pi­ra­tions, and this is what Yang has taught me,” said Zhang.

He said Yang, who is 92, re­mains a close per­sonal friend and that he usu­ally replies to his e-mail within two hours. Yang and Tsung-dao Lee, two of China’s No­bel Prize win­ners in 1957 for their work in physics, also in­spired him to study physics.

“Back in 1950s, they were the only ones who proved to the world that Chi­nese sci­en­tists were able to achieve great­ness. Their names mean so much to the Chi­nese and in­flu­enced my gen­er­a­tion,” said Zhang.

One of two chil­dren, Zhang at­trib­uted his early learn­ing ad­vance­ment to his in­tel­lec­tual fam­ily. His grand­fa­ther, Yi Zhang, was one of the first Fu­dan Univer­sity grad­u­ates in 1908 and his fa­ther, Hong­fan Zhang, was a grad­u­ate of Jiao­tong Univer­sity who ma­jored in ship build­ing.

“I was left am­ple time to read, play, think and ex­plore. Not much was taught at school at that time, but I was al­ways onto learn­ing some­thing, which is a habit I kept un­til to­day,” said Zhang.

Zhang said one of his big­gest hon­ors came from China in 2009.

“I was one of the sci­en­tists in­vited to the re­view­ing stage on Tian’an­men Square for the 60th na­tional day cel­e­bra­tion in 2009,” said Zhang. “It was a truly emo­tional mo­ment for me. I was so proud to be a Chi­nese, and have made my moth­er­land proud.”

Amer­ica has made ev­ery op­por­tu­nity pos­si­ble for him, said Zhang.

“When I first went to Ger­many in the 1980s, many Ger­mans had never seen Chi­nese be­fore. They showed great hos­pi­tal­ity to me by invit­ing me to have din­ner at their homes, and af­ter three years they were still do­ing the same — then I re­al­ized I was treated as a vis­it­ing guest in Ger­many. Amer­ica is dif­fer­ent. No­body re­ally pays at­ten­tion to who you are and where you come from. This is a coun­try that ac­cepts ev­ery­one who wants an op­por­tu­nity, and you can con­trol your own des­tiny the mo­ment you land,” he ex­plained.

A sci­en­tist who has at­tained rec­og­nized achieve­ment, he still speaks with great mod­esty and pru­dence.

“In physics, we an­a­lyze the most dif­fi­cult phe­nom­ena and sum­ma­rize them into a sim­ple and uni­ver­sal law of na­ture. I find my­self in­spired by young stu­dents who are cre­ative and think with no boundary,” he said.

Other than his sci­en­tific re­search and study, Zhang wants his legacy to be his stu­dents. He su­per­vised 20 stu­dents who grad­u­ated with a Phd in physics and many of them have be­come aca­demic lead­ers at Har­vard, Prince­ton, Stan­ford, the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in San Diego, Pur­due and Ts­inghua Univer­sity in China.

Zhang’s son Brian was an in­ter­na­tional physics gold medal win­ner in high school. Now he is a ju­nior at Har­vard ma­jor­ing in physics with a mi­nor in com­puter sci­ence.

His daugh­ter Stephanie is a se­nior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia, who wants to help un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren world­wide with on­line ed­u­ca­tional classes. She went to Qing­hai last year to ini­ti­ate a so­ci­ol­ogy study on lo­cal chil­dren in a re­mote area where ed­u­ca­tional re­sources are scarce.

Zhang’s wife Bar­bara, whom he has known since kinder­garten, is a soft­ware en­gi­neer at IBM.

A firm pro­moter of self-mo­ti­va­tion, Zhang be­lieves the most im­por­tant thing an ed­u­ca­tor or par­ent can do to in­flu­ence the younger gen­er­a­tion is to leave space for them to find their in­ter­est and pas­sion.

“To­day, young people are stuffed with so much home­work and some­times they are tired of study­ing or have no time to think about what they are re­ally in­ter­ested,” he said. “We should leave enough space for young stu­dents to find their true pas­sion and guide them to self ex­plo­ration. Only pas­sion and self mo­ti­va­tion are sus­tain­able in the long run.”

Zhang at­tributes his aca­demic achieve­ments to Stan­ford, which he said is his source of “hap­pi­ness.”

“Ev­ery morn­ing com­ing to work, I still can’t be­lieve there is such a great job in the world like this. We have fab­u­lous weather in Cal­i­for­nia, beau­ti­ful en­vi­ron­ment. I teach the most bril­liant minds in the world, and have the ul­ti­mate free­dom to carry out my re­search,” said Zhang, “life couldn’t be bet­ter.”

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KELLY ZHANG / CHINA DAILY

Shoucheng Zhang, a J.G. Jack­son and C.J Wood Pro­fes­sor of Physics at Stan­ford, is in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized for his re­search in topo­log­i­cal in­su­la­tors, quan­tum spin Hall ef­fect, spintronics and high tem­per­a­ture su­per­con­duc­tiv­ity.

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