Scholar tipped to lead HKU made his name turning science fiction into reality with ‘invisibility cloak’
Mainland-born US national based at Berkeley prides himself on close relationships with students
Professor Zhang Xiang is a man capable of turning science fiction into reality, having masterminded the creation of the world’s first “invisibility cloak”.
The mainland-born scholar, tipped to become the next leader of Hong Kong’s oldest university, is also described as contributing significantly to China’s science and technology scene, despite being an American citizen.
The Nanjing-born academic prides himself on fostering close relationships with his students, according to an interview given by his employer, the University of California, Berkeley.
“I like [students] to challenge me and to debate with me … when they graduate they have equal capabilities and equal critical thinking and that is actually my biggest satisfaction,” he said.
Zhang works as a professor of mechanical engineering at the university and heads a research lab specialising in nanoscience technology.
While Berkeley’s chair professor of mechanical engineering described Zhang as “an incredible academic researcher and pioneer innovator in the field”, a PhD student under him said he was “deeply influenced by his passion for science and discovery”.
A source close to the University of Hong Kong’s 11-member selection committee told the Post that Zhang was the preferred candidate among four contenders.
Zhang studied at Nanjing University and went to the University of Minnesota, in the US, for graduate studies when he was 25 years old. He later obtained a PhD at Berkeley.
Before his current post, he taught at the Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Zhang, who turns 54 this month, is best known for his breakthrough research in metamaterials, a discovery that allows an engineered material to manipulate and bend light in unnatural ways. The feat overcame a diffraction limit barrier that had not been cracked in 200 years.
Time magazine called it one of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008.
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An invention that secured Zhang wide acclaim was the world’s first “invisibility cloak”. In 2015, his team developed a thin cloak that could wrap around 3D objects and create an illusion of invisibility, using the material to manipulate and reflect light waves.
When light hits the cloak, it appears flat.
The cloak, however, is only able to mask microscopic objects – the size of a few biological cells – and requires the viewer to stay very still.
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Zhang is also a member of the Chinese Academy of Science – a national think tank that advises the central government on major science and technology issues. His inclusion in the academy is noteworthy as there are only 90 foreign nationals out of the 800 members, and one is invited based on important contributions to the cause of science and technology in China.
According to the academy, Zhang helped set up Nanjing University’s school of engineering and applied sciences, as well as promoted cooperation and exchange in the field between China and the US. He is said to have trained and mentored more than 50 Chinese graduate students and scholars who have also become leaders in their field.
Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of HKU’s academic staff association, called Zhang’s recognition by the academy an honour but believed it meant he had developed close relations with scholars on the mainland.
“I’m worried that under his leadership, HKU will just be another Peking University or Tsinghua University,” he said. “That’s not what we want.”
Yet Cheung acknowledged the professor’s ties could help the institution in sourcing research grants.
HKU staff relations with current vice chancellor, Peter Mathieson, have soured and become distant, he added, especially over political controversies and after Mathieson announced his resignation in February.
Cheung said it was important for the new university leader to safeguard the institution’s core values, such as its autonomy and academic freedom.
“I hope the next president can be more liberal, for example, on discussing Hong Kong independence at schools,” he added. “The more you try to suppress such things, the worse the reaction.”
“I hope he doesn’t just treat Hong Kong like another Chinese city.”