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Dialogue between Prof. Chen Jia'er and Prof. Wang Enge

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Peking University, Mar. 21, 2011: Chen Jia’er finished reading. After several seconds of silence, the crowd burst into thunderous applause.

 

“We Chinese are bound to stand out. Our people are no longer to be insulted! We’ve stood up! Go back, go back home quickly! Our country is waiting for us eagerly!” read the letter.

 

That was written in 1950, when Zhu Guangya, later to be Chen’s mentor and renowned nuclear scientist of New China, called upon overseas Chinese students to return home and contribute to their motherland.

 

“It’s this letter that encouraged countless young people to come back to China and contribute to her progress,” commented Chen, a physicist and former president of PKU.

 

“Yes, when she needs people for scientific development, I shall shoulder the responsibility,” echoed Wang Enge, also physicist, dean of PKU School of Physics, and provost of the university.

 


The dialogue underway was themed “A humanistic interpretation of the fascination of physics.” It was a keynote event at the opening ceremony of the PKU Physics Cultural Festival, which was inaugurated on March 12 at the South Wing Hall of PKU Library.

 

 
Born in the 1930s and 1950s respectively, the two professors represent different generations of Chinese scientists. Although their life paths are distinct, they are both tightly associated with "physics". They share the pursuit of physics, a bind with Peking University, and a love of country.

 

 

Physics is a lifestyle

The early lives of both Professor Chen Jia’er and Professor Wang Enge were full of hardships. However, they were excited when they spoke of their very first encounter with physics.

 

Professor Chen Jia’er's father is a well-known writer of children’s literature. Professor Chen still remembers the stories of great scientists told by his father. The father’s stories buried a seed of loving for science in the little boy’s heart. Later, the science education he received in school equipped Chen with a better understanding of the charm of science. In his spare time, he founded an association called "Creation Society" where he frequently pondered problems in science and read Science with his classmates. To follow the call for "China’s rejuvenation through industries," he chose electric engineering as his major and was attached to physics ever since.

 

Along Chen’s journey exploring the secrets of Physics, there was an important figure who gave him a hand. That man was Professor Zhu Guangya. In his talk, Professor Chen recalled the days with his teacher affectionately.

 

Professor Zhu Guangya attached great importance to inspiring students to think. He took up the "heuristic mode of education" and always cast questions for his students to think about. Then to inspire them he would tell the students the solutions discovered by Physics masters. Professor Chen Jia’er gave an example: “Once I asked him a question. He called me to the blackboard, listened to me carefully while putting key points onto the blackboard. After I was finished, he didn’t answer immediately. Rather, he began to ask me questions, such that step by step he guided me to finding the answer myself.”

 

"Physics is an enjoyment." Professor Chen Jia’er said. "Professor Zhu devoted his whole life to Physics, sincerely."

 

Professor Wang Enge experienced political movements in China such as the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76). He referred to the period of his youth as "an interesting age." He treated the hard times he went through as a precious treasure. "I don't complain the age from the bottom of my heart, but I don't want anyone to experience that anymore."

 

He recalled that a physic teacher asked "All things may come and go. Imagine if the sun also faded away and disappeared. What could we do then?"

 

In the class, quite a lot of students said "that is impossible!" Some said "find a bulb and replace," and some said "search for another sun and make the earth move around the new sun."

 

Wang Enge thought that to "search for another sun" might be his mission. What a coincidence. These words foreshadowed Professor Wang's future career in physics.

 

"Physics has become a kind of lifestyle for me," Said Professor Wang. He chose the number "711" as his office number, "7-11" is his working condition: work begins at 7:00 am and ends at 11:00 pm every day without any exception. "Physics is part of my being." Wang said and smiled. "I don't know what to do if I’m not doing physics."

 

Professor Wang Enge also quoted Daniel Tsui Chee, physicist and Nobel laureate, to illustrate the fascination of physics: "There exists no other subject like physics in leading us to think about different questions every day. It is a big challenge to our mind. How could one be bored in such a questioning state?"

 

Science sees no boundaries, but scientists have their own motherland

Motherland means the most to these two masters. “Personal dignity is possible only when one’s country is powerful.” Almost 80 years old, white-haired Chen Jia’er uttered loudly. His childhood was spent in the Shanghai concession under the iron heel of Japanese invaders. He was acutely aware that the fate of individuals was closely linked with the fate of their country. He made up his mind to acquire a mastery of skills and science while he was young, so that all invaders might be driven out.

 

Chen Jia’er remembered quite clearly the “pity” foreigners paid to the backwardness of Chinese science when he was studying in the UK. They told Chen to take magnets and transformers, items which the Chinese were already capable of manufacturing back then, back to China. However, the bitterness didn’t last long; after China’s first atomic bomb exploded, he suddenly felt he held his spine upright.

 

This is why in the Q&A part, Chen Jia’er responded to the question “whether to study abroad or not” with “Science sees no boundaries, but scientists have their own motherland.” Speaking of this, he leaned forward with hands crossed, “No matter where you go, always remember, you are a Chinese.”

 

Professor Wang Enge had a similar experience. After he earned a PhD at the PKU School of Physics, he studied and worked in university labs in France and the US with remarkable achievements. Afterwards, his resolute return to China at the cost of comfort in the US was inconceivable to many people. In fact, the thought is simple: “My country has cultivated me for so many years. When she needs people for scientific development, I have a responsibility to return and meet that need.”

 

During the dialogue, an incident touched the students present. Moved by the patriotism of his beloved mentor Zhu Guangya, Chen Jia’er read aloud Zhu’s long letter, which Zhu wrote while he was studying in the US, a call for overseas students to come back to China. Chen said with emotion, “It’s this letter that encouraged countless young people to come back to New China and contribute to her scientific progress.”

 

The letter read: “We are raised up at the cost of the sweat and blood of those millions of hard-working Chinese laborers. Now they need us badly. Why do we not return immediately and contribute what we have learned to the people of our country? Yes, it’s time we go home!” “We Chinese are bound to stand out. Our people are no longer to be insulted! We’ve stood up! Go back, go back home quickly! Our country is waiting for us eagerly!”

 

Professor Chen Jia’er finished reading. After seconds of silence, the crowd burst into thunderous applause.

 

Affection for Peking University always in heart

Professor Chen Jia’er, who served as president of PKU from 1996 to 1999, manifested his deep-rooted love for the university throughout the dialogue. Professor Chen reminded himself over and over again that there were no trivial things at PKU. He took up the historic responsibility unsurely, but managed to focus on academic research and provided fine environment for talents. He hosted the centennial celebration of PKU, led the "985 Project," and initiated the project of building a world-class university.

 

Professor Wang Enge also shared with students present how he felt after returning to PKU to teach for over a year. He said he was proud of the School of Physics and would exert himself to build an excellent environment for students to study in. “I hope every single student can be healthy and happy. I wish that  in retrospect every student will regard his or her time spent in PKU as an important life step.”

 

He expected that the students would step forward firmly to renew the glorious history of physics of hundreds of years. “We have excellent teams; all we need is to communicate with students further and to bring the academic forum to life. We need to provide the students with a broader stage.”

 

 

Translated by: Chen Wei and Chen Long

Edited by: Jacques

Source: PKU News (Chinese)