Scientist is in for the long run
Although astrophysics is in its infancy in China, Italian professor is determined to drive study forward
“Chinese students may be shy, and don’t ask many questions, but they’re definitely more motivated than the Europeans.” COSIMO BAMBI physics professor at Fudan Universitiy
Cosimo Bambi leads a very simple life in Shanghai, where he works as a physics professor at the renowned Fudan University.
Unlike typical Italians, Bambi points out that he does not love soccer. He’s also not a foodie, scouring downtown areas for the best pasta or pizza. Instead, he prefers to stay within the confines of Yangpu district, where he lives content with the Chinese offerings in his humble neighborhood.
Outside of work, he says he has very few interests, one of them being running half and full marathons in neighboring cities such as Suzhou and Taizhou.
But as simple as his life appears to be, Bambi is certainly no simpleton.
The 38-year-old is one of the few astrophysicists in China, and his current research is focused on general relativity and something that no one can even see — black holes.
Published in 1916, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains how gravity is, in fact, a result of the curvature of space and time. The theory remains key to the understanding of gravity and the motion of planets. A black hole is a region in space with such intense gravity that even light cannot escape from it, which explains why it is not visible. The two fields are related, as black holes are considered the most fundamental prediction of general relativity.
“I started working on black holes about eight years ago, just after I got my PhD. I was interested in this topic because the current framework has been stagnant for a long time. I wanted to push the boundaries of research into this field,” he says.
Bambi’s first encounter with Shanghai was in 2009, when he arrived in the city for a conference on black holes. Working in the city didn’t cross his mind. In fact, his impression of the downtown area was of largescale construction work that made it hard to even sleep.
However, the city eventually popped up in his mind a few years later, courtesy of his Chinese colleagues at the university in Japan where he was working.
“During that time, several Chinese colleagues were planning to leave. They told me that it was the right time to return to China, as there were many opportunities in the science field. They eventually convinced me to apply for the program,” he says.
Bambi eventually left Japan, but he spent a year in Germany as a Humboldt Fellow at the University of Tubingen before arriving at Fudan University. Since moving to China, he now has more time than ever to focus on his research in astrophysics and its related fields, which are still at a nascent stage in the country.
“In terms of astrophysics research, China is still lagging behind Europe and America. Here at Fudan, it is just me. In other countries, there are multiple astrophysicists in a university,” he says.
“But there are good research opportunities here in China. The quality of research has also improved a lot in the past six years. In fact, universities in Europe and the US have been decreasing in size. Here, there are many new departments opening and experts joining universities.”
One of the reasons Bambi leads such a modest life in Shanghai is the fact that he doesn’t really have time for leisure.
Since joining Fudan University in 2012 through the Thousand Young Talents Program, the Italian has produced more than 10 research papers each year, with a combined total of nearly 80.
Since the scientists he usually collaborates with are outside China, the people he interacts with the most are his students, who help with his research efforts. Bambi says he is thankful that Fudan’s students are unlike those back in Italy and the rest of Europe.
“Chinese students may be shy, and don’t ask many questions, but they’re definitely more motivated than the Europeans. In Europe, the atmosphere is too relaxed. Here, the competition is tough, so that means the average quality of the students is really high,” he says.
Apart from teaching and research work, Bambi also helps to promote the development of astrophysics in Chinese universities by providing advice and conducting lectures. He has even published Introduction to
Particle Cosmology, the only Chinese textbook on astrophysics used in the country’s universities today.
Bambi also played a key role in setting up a research team at Fudan University to study high-energy astrophysics and black holes. Comprising students from all over the world, this team has collaborated with some of the world’s top universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech and Cambridge.
For his contributions to the university and the city, Bambi was awarded the Shanghai Magnolia Silver Award on Sept 12.
“I’m honored to be given this award. I must thank Fudan University and the city of Shanghai for everything they have done for me,” he says.
Looking ahead, Bambi aims to continue the long race to make a breakthrough in his field.
“Of course I would like to win a Nobel Prize one day,” says Bambi with a laugh. He has already received the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Prize, which is given to internationally renowned scientists and scholars who work outside of Germany.
“But to make a breakthrough worthy of the award is extremely rare. I can only hope. In the meantime, I plan to be based here for the coming years. This is where the opportunities are.”
Cosimo Bambi, a physics professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, says that although astrophysics research in China is still lagging behind Europe and the United States, the quality of research in China has improved a lot in the past few years.
Bambi and his students have a seminar after class.