ASTROPHYSICIST Zhang Shuangnan likes traditional Chinese deep-fried dough sticks with Western coffee for breakfast before he starts work on studying why a black hole gets “angry.”
Sometimes he finds time to ponder why a woman is pretty, or to write poems on gravitational waves or quantum entanglement.
"All these things are fun,” says the 54-year-old director of the Key Laboratory of Particle Astrophysics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) with a roguish grin.
Zhang’s expertise is in neutron stars, black holes, galaxies and the evolution of the universe through astronomical observation and theoretical calculation. On the side he develops astronomical instruments for space.
But he also tries to explain science to the public from the angle of beauty, and to study beauty in a scientific way.
Zhang is in charge of two important projects. One is a probe on China’s first space lab, Tiangong-2, to detect the polarization of gamma-ray bursts, and the other is a space telescope, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), to be launched soon.
Scientists owe the discovery of a kind of “violent tempered” black hole in the Milky Way to medicine.
And it was Zhang who made this cross-disciplinary discovery.
Zhang did his post-doctoral research in the United States, and applied for a job in a hospital. He studied how doctors get medical images.
He later worked for NASA, and in 1992 he used medical image software to deal with astronomical observation data. Thus he created the earth occultation imaging technology, which he publicized in authoritative academic journal Nature in 1994.
The unconventional scientist used this method to analyze data sent back by a gamma-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,” Zhang recalls.
What he discovered was the second micro-quasar found in the Milky Way. It was a violent, jet-spouting black hole with seven times the mass of the Sun.
Zhang and his colleagues created a method to measure the rotation of the black holes, drawing great attention in academic circles. He was the lead author of an article on black holes published in the journal Science in 2000.
"The study of black holes constantly surprises me. It’s challenging and very interesting,” Zhang says.
Although Zhang shared a group award from NASA for their discovery on black holes, he was barred from leading a satellite project, as NASA forbids Chinese scientists from leading key projects.
He left NASA, and accepted an invitation from his former Chinese tutor, Li Tipei, an academician of the CAS, to help develop the HXMT telescope in 2002.
A tortuous process
The research and development of the space telescope was a tortuous process lasting more than a decade. Suffering from backaches as a result of long hours, Zhang says he is under so much pressure with its imminent launch and has so many things to deal with that he has no time to feel excited.
Meanwhile, the probe developed by Zhang’s team on the Tiangong-2 space lab, which was launched in September, is working well in the search for gamma-ray bursts, the strongest explosions in the universe.
But Zhang also wants to try something outside the original plan. He and his team have succeeded in locating signals from the Crab Pulsar by analyzing the data sent back by the probe.
"This is the first time a Chinese space astronomical instrument has been used to study the remaining pulsar left by the supernova explosion recorded by the ancient Chinese nearly 1,000 years ago,” Zhang says.
Zhang is also interested in aesthetics, and he has been studying beauty even longer than he had been developing satellites. When China initiated its reform and opening up in the late 1970s, Chinese began to discuss beauty.
"Someone said Taiwan singer Teresa Teng, who was very popular at that time, was pretty, but others disagreed. I wondered why there was disagreement and what is beauty,” Zhang says.
Born with an insatiably curious mind, Zhang wants to know the rules behind every phenomenon, including the rules of aesthetics. A scientist studying aesthetics uses all the scientific methods such as induction, verification, falsification, logic and quantification.
Gradually, Zhang concluded 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 says. He seriously believes an aesthetic robot, which could be used in beauty contests, spouse selection, design and architecture, will have great commercial value.
"Our life should be aesthetic. If it’s not, we will lose the belief that tomorrow will be better and more beautiful than today; we will lose hope,” says Zhang.
The aim of technological innovation is to make up for the defects of the original technology and make unique inventions. The goal of scientific innovation is to rectify flaws in the original theory and make new discoveries. Therefore, says Zhang, 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,” Zhang adds.
Zhang often makes time from his busy schedule to take part in science popularization activities. He likes to explain science and beauty, citing examples from Socrates to Einstein, from the Big Bang to gravitational waves.
If someone asks what’s the point of studying black holes, Zhang answers, “I don’t know. I just want to understand black holes.”
Most scientific research is useless at first. But the technologies that have the greatest impacts on our daily life all originated from “useless” science, Zhang says.
"We hope China can become a scientifically advanced country. But still it will take a very long time,” Zhang says. (Shanghai Daily)
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