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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 13:20 EDT

Astrophysicist Fang Lizhi Spent Two Decades At UA

April 11, 2012

Fang Lizhi, a major voice for human rights and democracy and a pioneering scientist in his native China, continued to advance the field of astrophysics at the UA for more than 20 years before he died last week.

Human rights activist Fang Lizhi, who died last week at age 76, had been a professor in the University of Arizona department of physics and an adjunct professor with the UA’s Steward Observatory for more than 20 years, where he made highly regarded contributions to astrophysics.

Fang was world renowned for his outspoken and active role in promoting human rights in his native China.

Considered an “undesirable element” by the Chinese government, Fang was dismissed from the Chinese nuclear program and reassigned in 1958 to the University of Science and Technology of China, or USTC, which is regarded as China’s equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to hard labor in the country. In 1978, upon returning to USTC, Fang became full professor and in 1984, vice president. His books on physics and cosmology and his articles and books on openness and democracy were widely admired.

Owing to his outspoken encouragement and support of the 1986 student movement demanding a more democratic government, he again was dismissed and sent to the Beijing Astronomical Observatory, where he led a theoretical astrophysics group in 1987. Fang remained an outspoken advocate of democratic reforms.

In the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the Chinese government accused him and his wife as the leaders of the movement and issued a warrant for their arrest. Fang and his wife sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where they remained for 13 months, until the Chinese authorities finally allowed them to leave the country.

During his confinement, Fang continued his scientific research, submitting three papers for publication in international journals.

Less known to the public are Fang’s professional contributions to research and teaching. He was one of the founders of modern astrophysics and cosmology in China. While mainly a theoretical physicist, Fang had been instrumental in helping the Chinese astronomical community develop observational astronomy, even after moving to the U.S.

He was one of the main collaborators on the successful Beijing-Arizona-Taipei-Connecticut survey project, one of the longest-running and most influential optical observational astronomical projects using a Chinese-based facility, said Xiaohui Fan, a UA professor of astronomy who collaborated with Fang.

“He was an inspiration for so many people in so many ways,” Fan said, adding that in the late 1990s, Fang and his collaborators published a series of papers using clusters of galaxies, the most massive objects in the universe, as tools to study the fate and evolution of the universe, and to measure parameters such as the mass density of the universe.

In recent years, Fang also moved into the newly developed field of cosmic reionization, studies of the epoch of the universe when the very first generation of stars and galaxies formed.

“He and his students were developing new models and new predictions to the direct observations of cosmic reionization,” Fan said. “In that sense, he was active to the very frontier of astrophysics and cosmology until the very last day.”

“Professor Fang had been my dear and valuable mentor,” said Zheng Cai, one of Fang’s graduate students in the UA’s physics department. “Since I first came to the UA, he gave me a lot of valuable suggestions on life as well as on academic study. His passing away is tragic, and I’m having a terribly hard time accepting it, but I believe professor Fang rests peacefully among the brightest stars in the universe.”

Fang’s exile began in 1990, first as a guest professor of the Royal Society at Cambridge, and the following year as Director’s Visitor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In 1992, Fang joined the UA as professor of physics. While in exile, he raised a generation of leaders of astrophysics in China through training of postdocs and graduate students.

During his tenure at the UA, Fang continued to do highly visible research on cosmology and published widely with his students and other colleagues, including in 2011, when he was unwell and in and out of the hospital on several occasions.

In 2010, he was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society in recognition of his scientific contributions as well as protecting the freedom of scientists around the world. He led cooperative projects on astrophysics with colleagues in China with his name usually redacted.

Being on the forefront of nuclear physics, laser physics, theoretical astrophysics and cosmology, Fang cared deeply about making scientific knowledge accessible not only to the academic community but society at large. He published more than 340 research papers and numerous popular articles and books, including a broadly read Chinese book on cosmology.

He was a member of the Chinese Academy of Science before being forced into exile. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Founding Fellow of the Arizona Arts, Sciences and Technology Academy.

Among his awards are the Chinese National Award of Science and Technology in 1978, the First Award of the Gravity Research Foundation (1985), the 1989 Human Rights Award named for Robert F Kennedy, the 1991 Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee and the 1996 Nicholson Medal of the American Physical Society.

In addition to numerous invited talks, Fang served on many scientific committees, including the council of the International Center for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Chair of Commission C19 of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, and chair of the steering committee of the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics Network.

Fang has been a leader in many human rights groups, including the International League for Human Rights, Committee of Concerned Scientists, and chair of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists.

Most recently, in spite of his illness, Fang was among the international organizers of the upcoming Thirteenth Marcel Grossmann Meeting on Recent Developments in Theoretical and Experimental General Relativity, Astrophysics and Relativistic Field Theories.

“Professor Fang was one of our most dedicated teachers,” said Sumit Mazumdar, head of the UA’s department of physics. “On the occasions that I visited him in the hospital, he was most concerned about his course, his students, and whether I was able to find a substitute teacher for his course. His courage came with a great deal of compassion, and we in the physics department will remember him for that as well as for his scholarship.”

“Professor Fang was a wonderful person and an astrophysicist with international recognition,” said David Arnett, a Regents’ Professor at the UA’s Steward Observatory. “Few of us can lay claim to as much as he can. He will be missed.”

A memorial service for department and family members will be held on April 14. A larger memorial service for the greater community is planned for May. For information, please contact the UA physics department at 520-621-6820.

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Source: University of Arizona