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.

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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] cosmicvariance.com .

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