Dissident physicist was too big for China

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2012, 12:00am


Fang Lizhi, the dissident physicist who died in exile in the United States last week and whose political ideas inspired the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, was once asked what he thought about China's political reform. To answer this, he said, he must begin with cosmology.

There was irony in this brilliant scientist's reply, but it was also a straightforward answer. In 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Fang was persecuted by Maoist radicals for publishing an essay innocuously titled 'A solution of the cosmological equations in scalar-tensor theory, with mass and blackbody radiation'.

Fang wrote the paper with several colleagues, utilising cutting-edge theories from the West that were producing new insights into the structure and origin of the universe as related to black holes, the Big Bang and Einstein's general theory of relativity. Today, a paper of such calibre would probably earn its author(s) an award and a cash grant from the authorities.

But, as non-political as it appeared, it actually cut to the heart of communism's atheistic belief. Mao Zedong and his followers took their cue from Friedrich Engels, who adopted a crude view of a Newtonian model of the universe, which he believed to be infinite in space and time. In other words, it has always been there and everywhere - because that does away with the need for creation or a creator. By contrast, the Big Bang theory argues for a finite but expanding universe that had a moment of creation. What irony! Giordano Bruno, the 16th century philosopher, was burned at the stake for believing in an infinite and uncreated universe; centuries later, Fang was persecuted for disproving it.

Today the Communist Party would not care about such ideology, and Fang could have been a revered scientist and official if he had been born a few decades later. His most recent research in the US was on dark matter, the universe's 'missing' mass, a subject that is also studied on the mainland as part of its push to promote cutting-edge science. What a waste that China, for all its vastness, could not find a place to accommodate this brilliant man.