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China science

How Stephen Hawking’s Chinese disciple is smashing universal barriers in his spirit

Emerging top scientist Yangyang Cheng credits famous physicist Hawking with helping to heal her wounds after she lost her father at age 10

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2018, 3:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2018, 9:01am

“I am the great-granddaughter of women with bound feet, for whom learning to read was a revolutionary act. I am a particle physicist at an Ivy League institution, working on the most powerful particle accelerator in the world.”

These words conclude a manifesto of sorts written by Yangyang Cheng, whose postdoctoral research is helping to answer some of the most basic questions about life, and earned her recognition recently as being among the world’s “outstanding emerging science and security experts”. 

Cheng credits Stephen Hawking, the world-famous physicist who died this week, with helping to heal the wounds she suffered when she lost her father at age 10. She found a translation of Hawking’s bestselling work, A Brief History of Time, on her father’s bookshelf and endeavoured to read it. 

The book and Hawking’s status as “one of the foremost physicists ever” helped put Cheng on the path to a career as a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University’s Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based Sciences and Education (CLASSE) and a “distinguished researcher” fellow at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Physics Centre. An LHC is also known as a “supercollider”.

Cornell University’s physics department publicised Cheng’s story to honour the late physicist. While many thousands of mainland Chinese have distinguished themselves in careers in science outside their home country, few have gone as far as Cheng. 

Her work at Cornell involves searches for dark matter, a substance thought to be a central component in the universe’s structure. 

Because dark matter cannot yet be observed directly, scientists such as Cheng have looked for evidence of the material through collisions of proton beams carried out at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN. 

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Cheng, a mainland China native, moved to the US in 2009 to pursue graduate studies, earning her PhD in physics from the University of Chicago in 2015. 

She had received her undergraduate degree in physics from University of Science and Technology of China, in Hefei, Anhui province. She remains a Chinese citizen.

While the story of a mainland Chinese woman of humble origins emerging as a pioneer in the quest for knowledge about the physical structure of the universe might inspire anyone, regardless of their nationality, China’s government is not likely to trumpet Cheng’s accomplishments. 

The 28-year-old physicist has been vocal about the need for more academic freedom in China, and in recent months has become increasingly outspoken about the government’s attempts to censor scholarly debate. 

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She cited, as an example, Cambridge University Press’s decision last year to take down more than 300 articles from The China Quarterly at the request of the General Administration of Press and Publication. 

Cheng has made a particular issue of the Chinese government’s plan to build the next supercollider, which will take decades and cost tens of billions of dollars. CERN operates the world’s only functioning supercollider. 

Last year, Cheng wrote about the issue in Foreign Policy magazine, warning that “every potential collaborator at the Chinese supercollider will have to be fully aware that his or her participation is subject to political criteria and can be used as political leverage by the Chinese state”. 

Science “depends on an environment of free inquiry and debate”, Cheng wrote. “If academia in China continues along the path it’s taking, that’s unlikely to be a mood that will flourish at the collider.” 

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Cheng does not limit her criticism to China’s government. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists named her its 2017 Leonard M. Rieser Award recipient for her essay, “Let science be science again”, in which she wrote about her origins as a great granddaughter of women with bound feet. 

That ancient practice involved breaking the foot bones of young girls and wrapping them tightly to inhibit growth, since tiny feet were thought to be attractive to future husbands. 

In the essay, Cheng explained why she took part in the “March for Science” shortly after US President Donald Trump took office. 

That march, in Washington and hundreds of other cities, was organised by scientists critical of Trump administration policies widely viewed as hostile to science, including the US leader’s vow to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. 

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Despite her warnings about the politicisation of the construction of the next supercollider in China, Cheng is reluctant to characterise herself as a critic of the Chinese government. 

That resistance is mainly because of the importance she places on China’s continuing to engage with the international scientific community. 

“Their curiosity in understanding the most basic structures and interaction of nature is genuine,” Cheng said of her compatriot physicists. 

Her explanation about the connection she feels with scientists in China references particle physics and Hawking’s ideas about time. 

“As a particle physicist, I know that every human being is made up of the same fundamental particles, bound by the same fundamental forces, and originating from the same burst of stardust,” she said. 

“So I do believe that there are certain values that are universal and the Chinese people are deserving of such universal human rights and civil liberties. 

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“It just so happened that Hawking’s book was about time,” she said. “This personal story of the loss of a father at a very young age and a daughter’s personal growth and journey to find this missing link in her life was related through a book about time.

“It helped me break through the confines of space and time and life and death itself to fill in some of the memories.”