Fang Lizhi

By Sean Carroll | April 12, 2012 11:22 am

We’re a little bit late here, but I wanted to note that Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi died on Friday in Arizona at the age of 76.

Fang’s research area was quantum cosmology, but he was most well-known for his political activism, fighting against repression in China. Originally a member of the Communist Party, he was expelled for protesting some of the government’s policies. The NYT obituary relates an amusing/horrifying story, according to which Fang attracted the government’s censure by co-authoring a paper entitled “A Solution of the Cosmological Equations in Scalar-Tensor Theory, with Mass and Blackbody Radiation.” Seems pretty innocuous from where we are sitting, but in Communist China the Big Bang model was considered to be a challenge to Engels’s idea that that the universe was infinite, and therefore was deemed heresy. Googling around brought me to this 1988 article in Contemporary Chinese Thought, which shows what Fang was up against. The abstract quotes Lenin, and says in all seriousness “with every new advance in science the idealists distort and take advantage of the latest results of physics to “prove” with varying sleights of hand that the universe is finite, serving the reactionary rule of the moribund exploiting classes.”

In the late 1980’s Fang helped organize resistance to China’s authoritarian regime, in the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square protests. He was fired from his job as a professor, and sought refuge in the American embassy. He was finally permitted to leave the country and emigrate to America in 1990. He finally settled down at the University of Arizona, but continued his work campaigning for human rights.

  • Phillip Helbig

    It seems that Lenin actually read a lot of physics and spent considerable effort trying to find out the extent to which it was compatible with his philosophy (rather than vice versa).

    In their joint book, Sagan notes in the preface that he let stand some of Shlovskii’s remarks to the effect that dialectical materialism requires there to be life on every planet.

  • j milliet

    “The abstract quotes Lenin, and says in all seriousness… ”

    Any chance of rewording this? It comes across to me as a bit confusing because the first time I read it I thought the “with every new advance…” quote was from Lenin.

  • Just a Person

    The ideology of communism is based on materialism and therefore fully supporting and/or being equivalent to physics in terms of philosophy. China being as an authoritarian regime does not and should not be representing communism at all. It is sad that Fang Lizhi had to suffer from such a regime. However, such things should not be attributed to communism at all, but the regime that currently communism is ‘survived’ somehow paradoxically.

    In fact, during the US and the USSR cold war both political parties have done equally harms by teaching wrong ideologies. For example, it is always said that soviet citizens were not allowed to travel abroad. However, that was equally true for americans who could never visit soviet/communistic countries. Since the world divided into two, here the concept “abroad” would not make any sense. For the rest of world soviet/communistic countries should have been referred to as abroad. A clear example is Feynman’s several attempt to get permission to visit the Soviet Union; it was never granted and even he was ignored for many times. So it is sad that the world of politics (but at least not communism) has never been better.

    By the way, Phillip, Lenin was a genius and he knew physics very well. His “MATERIALISM and EMPIRIO-CRITICISM” is an example of it, in which he proposed that atoms are not the final unbreakable particles, and that the ladder continues all the way down.

  • Neal J. King

    I remember Fang Lizhi primarily for a model he proposed to explain the observations on the object SS 433, which displayed two time-varying Dopper-shift spectra: the two frequencies varied as sinusoidal oscillations in opposite phase, against a constant offset. His mode proposed that the two sources were due to lasing at the innermost radius of an accretion disk, where the general-relativistic effects would “squeeze out” the kinetic energy of the gas molecules, leading to a population inversion ripe for lasing.

    I thought his explanation too improbable: The only way the model would ever allow the two Doppler frequencies to coincide was if the axis of rotation of the disk were to point DIRECTLY along the line of sight to the observer (at Earth); but in fact the frequencies did cross. We would have to be just too lucky.

    The generally accepted explanation now is still associated with accretion disks, but the sources are the two opposed jets spurting along the axis. The frequencies cross whenever the precession of the axis takes it perpendicular to the line of sight; if the half-angle of the cone of nutation is X, the probability that the Earth would be in position to observe a crossing, at some point, is sin(X); a much more plausible number.

    So I was the probably the only ex-astrophysics student in the world who was not too sympathetic to his case when he was hiding out in the US Embassy in Beijing! I was all for turning him over!

    (not really)

  • Geack

    @3. Just a Person,
    “…cold war both political parties have done equally harms by teaching wrong ideologies…” There is a huge difference in both kind and severity between the “wrongs” of capitalism and the “wrongs” of the system that led to the Gulag, purges, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and the Stasi’s network of people policing the thoughts of their neighbors.

    As for your travel argument, there’s a huge difference between limiting travel to a few countries which are your avowed enemies (especially such travel by a genius national treasure with an insider’s knowlege of the US nuclear development program, like Feynman), and making it illegal or impossible for people to take a weekend trip anywhere (even within your bloc) without explicit govt permission. There were periods in the Soviet system where people couldn’t even choose what apartment to live in, much less move to another city. You either don’t know or choose to ignore an awful lot of important history. And just to run with your Feynman example: he never got to Russia, but he traveled unimpeded to basically every other part of the world, and spent months at a time in Brazil. Ask Andrei Sakharov if the two systems were in any way comparable.

  • Neal J. King

    I do not recall that Feynman had any trouble from the US government about travel to anywhere in the USSR; he had trouble from the USSR’s government, who didn’t want people poking around.

    At one point I believe he refused an invitation to a conference in the USSR, because Landau was prevented from traveling out – again, by the government of the USSR.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “By the way, Phillip, Lenin was a genius and he knew physics very well. His “MATERIALISM and EMPIRIO-CRITICISM” is an example of it, in which he proposed that atoms are not the final unbreakable particles, and that the ladder continues all the way down.”

    I have a (quite good and very thick) book on particle physics which was written and published in the former East Germany. There are no “elementary particles” in the book; they are “microparticles” (translating from the original German in both cases).

    One does have to distinguish between people not being able to travel because some country doesn’t let them in and people not being able to travel because their own country does not let them out.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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