Sci­en­tist is in for the long run

Al­though as­tro­physics is in its in­fancy in China, Ital­ian pro­fes­sor is de­ter­mined to drive study for­ward

China Daily European Weekly - - CHINA NEWS - By AL­WYN CHEW in Shang­hai aly­win@chi­

“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.

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