Chi­nese sci­en­tist com­bines ex­trater­res­trial in­sights with a deep love of beauty. Yu Fei re­ports for China Fea­tures at Xin­hua News Agency.

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA -

Astro­physi­cist Zhang Shuang­nan likes tra­di­tional Chi­nese deep­fried dough sticks and West­ern cof­fee for break­fast be­fore he gets down to work, study­ing why black holes get “an­gry.”

Some­times he finds time to pon­der why a per­son is at­trac­tive, or to write po­ems about grav­i­ta­tional waves or quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment.

“All these things are fun,” said the 54-yearold di­rec­tor of the Key Lab­o­ra­tory of Par­ti­cle As­tro­physics at the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences.

Zhang’s field in­volves ex­am­in­ing neu­tron stars, black holes, gal­ax­ies and the evo­lu­tion of the uni­verse through as­tro­nom­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion and the­o­ret­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion.

In his work­ing life, he de­vel­ops as­tro­nom­i­cal in­stru­ments, but in his free time, he tries to ex­plain science from the per­spec­tive of beauty and stud­ies aes­thet­ics from a sci­en­tific view­point.

Zhang is in charge of two im­por­tant projects: a probe on Tian­gong II, China’s lat­est space lab, to de­tect the po­lar­iza­tion of bursts of gamma rays; and a space te­le­scope, the Hard X-ray Mod­u­la­tion Te­le­scope, which is sched­uled for launch soon.

Black hole

The dis­cov­ery of a spe­cial type of “vi­o­lent tem­pered” black hole in the Milky Way owes a huge debt to med­i­cal science, but it was Zhang who made the cross-dis­ci­plinary dis­cov­ery.

He un­der­took post-doc­toral re­search in the United States, and stud­ied the process by which med­i­cal im­ages are ob­tained.

Later, when he worked for NASA in 1992, he used med­i­cal imag­ing soft­ware to deal with as­tro­nom­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion data.

The move re­sulted in the cre­ation of imag­ing tech­nol­ogy to mea­sure the earth’s oc­cul­ta­tion — the move­ment of a ce­les­tial body across the line of sight of an observer and an­other ob­ject in space — which Zhang pub­li­cized in Na­ture, one of the world’s most re­spected aca­demic jour­nals, in 1994.

The un­con­ven­tional sci­en­tist used the tech­nique to an­a­lyze data sent back by a gam-ma-ray as­tro­nom­i­cal satel­lite.

“Sud­denly, one day I found a new gamma-ray ce­les­tial body, which was the bright­est ob­ject in space at that time. I was as­tounded— I knew it was a big dis­cov­ery,” he re­called.

He had pin­pointed only the sec­ond mi­cro­quasar ever dis­cov­ered in the Milky Way. It was a vi­o­lent, jet-spout­ing black hole seven times the mass of the Sun.

Zhang and his col­leagues de­vised a method to mea­sure the ro­ta­tion of black holes, which at­tracted great at­ten­tion in aca­demic cir­cles, and he was lead author of an ar­ti­cle on the phe­nom­e­non, pub­lished in the jour­nal Science in 2000.

“The study of black holes con­stantly sur­prises me. It’s chal­leng­ing and very in­ter­est­ing,” he said.

Al­though Zhang shared a group award from NASA for the dis­cov­ery, he was barred from lead­ing a satel­lite project be­cause the US space ad­min­is­tra­tion doesn’t al­low Chi­nese sci­en­tists to lead key projects.

He left NASA, and in 2002 he ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion from his for­mer tu­tor, Li Tipei, an aca­demi­cian at CAS, to help de­velop the HXMT te­le­scope.

Re­search and de­vel­op­ment of the space te­le­scope was a tor­tu­ous process that lasted more than a decade.

Zhang said he is un­der so much pres­sure from the im­mi­nent launch and has so many things to deal with that he has no time to feel ex­cited. He also has se­vere back pain as a re­sult of work­ing long hours.

Mean­while, the probe de­vel­oped by Zhang’s team on Tian­gong II, which was launched in Septem­ber, is work­ing well in the search for gamma-ray bursts, the strong­est ex­plo­sions in the uni­verse.

Zhang also wants to try some­thing out­side the orig­i­nal plan be­cause he and his team have suc­ceeded in lo­cat­ing sig­nals from the Crab Pul­sar, a young neu­tron star, by an­a­lyz­ing data sent back by the probe.

“This is the first time a Chi­nese-made as­tro­nom­i­cal in­stru­ment has been used to study the re­main­ing pul­sar left by a su­per­nova ex­plo­sion recorded by Chi­nese astronomers nearly 1,000 years ago,” he said.

Flaw­less and rare

Zhang’s other great love is aes­thet­ics, and he has been study­ing beauty for even longer than he has been de­vel­op­ing satel­lites.

One of the re­sults of the re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy ini­ti­ated in the early 1980s was that Chi­nese peo­ple be­gan dis­cussing per­cep­tions of beauty.

“Some­one said the Tai­wan singer Teresa Teng, who was very pop­u­lar at that time, was pretty, but oth­ers dis­agreed. I won­dered why there was dis­agree­ment and what con­sti­tutes beauty,” said Zhang, who is keen to learn the rules that gov­ern ev­ery phe­nom­e­non, in­clud­ing aes­thet­ics.

As a sci­en­tist, he has stud­ied aes­thet­ics through sci­en­tific meth­ods, such as in­duc­tion, ver­i­fi­ca­tion, fal­si­fi­ca­tion, logic and quan­tifi­ca­tion, and has reached the con­clu­sion that beauty is flaw­less and rare.

“I can even write a for­mula for aes­thet­ics. Based on that, we can de­velop an aes­thetic robot in the fu­ture,” Zhang said, adding that aes­thetic ro­bots would have great com­mer­cial value be­cause they could be used to select spouses, and in de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture.

“Our lives should be aes­thetic. If they are not, we will lose the be­lief that to­mor­row will be bet­ter and more beau­ti­ful than to­day; we will lose hope,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to Zhang, the aim of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion is to com­pen­sate for the de­fects of orig­i­nal tech­nol­ogy and de­vise unique in­ven­tions.

The goal of sci­en­tific in­no­va­tion is to rec­tify flaws in orig­i­nal the­o­ries and make new dis­cov­er­ies.

There­fore, the essence of sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion is the pur­suit of beauty.

“At the same time, sci­en­tific ex­plo­ration is full of sur­prises that are un­com­mon. Such sci­en­tific achieve­ment is the most beau­ti­ful,” he said.

Zhang of­ten makes time to take part in ac­tiv­i­ties to pop­u­lar­ize science and his the­o­ries about beauty, where he cites ex­am­ples from Socrates to Ein­stein, from the Big Bang to grav­i­ta­tional waves.

If some­one asks about the pur­pose of study­ing black holes, Zhang sim­ply an­swers: “I don’t know. I just want to un­der­stand black holes.”

Most sci­en­tific re­search is use­less at first, he said, but the tech­nolo­gies that have the great­est im­pacts on our daily lives all orig­i­nated from “use­less” science: “We hope China can be­come a sci­en­tif­i­cally ad­vanced coun­try. But it will take a very long time.”

The study of black holes con­stantly sur­prises me. It’s chal­leng­ing and very in­ter­est­ing.” Zhang Shuang­nan, astro­physi­cist at the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences

China Fea­tures is a fea­ture depart­ment of Xin­hua News Agency, which writes in­depth sto­ries for over­seas read­ers.


Tech­ni­cians as­sess the reen­try cap­sule of Shen­zhou XI which landed in the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion on Fri­day, bring­ing home two astro­nauts from China’s long­est manned space mis­sion.


Astro­nauts Jing Haipeng (right) and Chen Dong aboard the Tian­gong II space lab.


Chi­nese astro­nauts Jing Haipeng (top) and Chen Dong salute as they are car­ried off the plane that brought them to Bei­jing on Fri­day evening. The two had re­turned to Earth ear­lier the same day af­ter a month-long space mis­sion.

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