Asians and Physics
Ngee-Pong Chang

[Fall 2001]

It was the year 1054 A.D., when an astronomer from the Tang dynasty stared into the clear night sky and was stunned by the sudden appearance of a bright object in the otherwise familiar constellation. "A guest star invaded the constellation!" The astronomer entered onto his log. 

Many hundred years later, this was confirmed to be an eye-witness report of the supernova explosion at the Crab nebulae. Similarly, an American graduate student, on a cold night, peering at heaven on top of the Andean mountain in 1987, was also lucky enough to perceive this rarest of the rare cosmic phenomenon, except that astrophysicists now want to know more than the light that reached us. 

Theory predicted that in a supernova explosion, when a massive star collapsed into its core, and then blew off the entire shell, an elusive particle, called "neutrino" would emerge before photons, the quanta of light. To study this mysterious particle, particle physicists have constructed huge water tanks buried deep underneath the earth, in an attempt to catch the almost totally non-interactive particle which can pass through practically everything we know. 

When the American scientists checked at their 10 story by 10 story pure water tank, alas, they found to their utter horror that it was not turned on, a result due to previous budget cuts approved by the Congress. Indeed, the only laboratory in the world that made an accurate record of the supernova neutrinos, showing the birth of the resultant neutron stars, was found in Kamiokande, Japan. 

Two supernovas. Twice observed by Asians.

"When you look at such cosmic phenomena, you wonder at God's creation," Prof. Ngee Pong Chang asked rhetorically, "does it matter whether it was Asians who observed it?" 

He emphasized that he merely wanted to point out the historical trend of scientific endeavors, when Asians were at the apex of scientific discovery, then fell into decline, and subsequently made a strong comeback. "The rise and fall of scientific progress," Prof. Chang remarked, "is closely related to the resources allocated to basic research." Americans have seized the lead in physics from the Europeans since the Second Word War, but due to recent budget crisis, have slowly allowed the Europeans and Asians to regain their prominence in fundamental physics research. 

Prof. Chang cited statistics that showed the difficulty for Asian physics Ph.D.s to teach in the university. Whereas Asians constitute over 30% of the entering Ph.D. in physics, statistics show that Asians only hold 10% of the academic positions in universities. Many more Asian physics Ph.Ds enter into industry and business than other ethnicities. This is manifested in industrial labs all across the United States. "In Silicon Valley," Prof. Chang smiled wryly, "the running joke is that IC doesn't mean Integrated Circuit but refers to Indians and Chinese." "But what positions do they hold there?" he sighed, "For those who find jobs in industry, many are prevented from rising to managerial positions because of the glass ceiling, themselves being relegated to high tech work horse status." 

Despite a long list of Asian high achievers in physics, beginning with Bose, Raman, Yukawa, to Lee and Yang, and the many Nobel physicists that followed, Prof Chang believed that Asians have a long way to go to assert themselves in the scientific world. He expressed the wish that more resources and attention be showered towards Asian American physicists to further the scientific and economic progress in the American society. "Brilliant minds are terrible things to waste," Prof. Chang said solemnly. 

In his presentation, Prof. Chang regaled the audience with wonderful anecdotes about how S. Chandrasekhar, used to drive two hundred miles round trip each week to teach a graduate course at University of Chicago signed up by only two young graduate students: T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang, who later entered the Nobel pantheon. Chandrasekhar himself was awarded the Nobel Prize some years later for his work on stellar dynamics. And he expressed deep disappointment about how Madame C. S. Wu, a great physicist who confirmed the breakdown of mirror symmetry, was chivalrously excluded from the Nobelist circle.

Synopsis by Thomas Tam






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