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Chen Shiyi: A life of turbulence

JUL . 11 2013

Peking University, June 30, 2013: “The more common the phenomenon is, the more often people fail to think about its underlying principle,” explained Professor Chen Shiyi.


Chen, a scholar of turbulence, was born in east China’s Zhejiang province in 1956. The young professor has attained several titles: dean of the College of Engineering (2005-2013) and of the Graduate School (2011- ) at Peking University (PKU/Beida), American Physical Society (APS) fellow, and editor of Acta Mechanica Sinica and Journal of Turbulence.


Though labeled with such titles, Professor Chen is still dedicated to his academic research on turbulence.


Professor Chen Shiyi (File photo)


"Turbulence around us"
“The sand storm that besieges Beijing in spring is actually related to turbulence. If we can figure out the mystery of turbulence, the sand storm may be effectively prevented.”


Professor Chen interpreted the value of turbulence research, adding that turbulence can also be applied to a wide range of fields like air pollution, weather forecast, commercializing process and aerospace. 


"The motherland needs you"

Professor Chen could almost remember every word of a letter from his mentor Zhou Peiyuan, China’s fluid mechanics guru. It was when he was abroad that he got the letter in which Zhou wrote: “China’s turbulence research needs talents, and I think you are the most suitable person. Come back, the motherland needs you.”


Professor Zhou is not only a master of fluid mechanics and theoretical physics, but also an educator who nurtured many prominent scholars and scientists. Chen was his first doctoral student.


“Professor Zhou influenced me not only on academic research, but more on personality. The one that impressed me most was that he always made his career aligned with our country’s needs,” said Professor Chen.


Deeply affected by his mentor, Professor Chen decisively came back to China though his career in the US was at its peak. He believes that scholars nowadays could be successful abroad, but the stage in China is colossal. The development of China’s economy, its practical talent policy, coupled with the overseas talents' deep understanding of Chinese culture will ensure their success back home.


“A flexible policy and comfortable working environment is a must in attracting those talents back home. We need patience to arrange time schedule according to personal academic development of each professor,” said Chen, inaugural dean of the Peking University College of Engineering restored in 2005.


“The College of Engineering at Beida is willing to provide this environment. As a matter of fact, the college has already attracted many top talents back home to lead the academy,” Professor Chen added.


Start from scratch
“The engineering subject at Beida hadn’t developed in an overall approach since the nationwide restructuring of colleges and departments in the 1950s,” Professor Chen said.


After the restructuring, the engineering departments at the university, along with those at other former comprehensive universities, were merged into Tsinghua University.


“The establishment of a world-class College of Engineering (since 2005) can not only strengthen the engineering culture at Beida, but also promote the development of the high and new technology and contribute to building an innovative society.”


According to Professor Chen, the unique advantage of the College of Engineering lies in its comprehensive strength, for the strength of research in humanity, sociology, science and medicine at the university provides profound basis and opportunities for the development of engineering. In a word, the college is equipped with solid basis for a take-off.


“The College of Engineering has already achieved substantial progress since it was established more than a year ago,” Professor Chen was quoted as saying in a 2010 profile. “The College of Engineering is of everyone's. It needs care and supports from everyone. We are full of confidence in the future of our college. So long as we keep moving forward, surely we can see the great development of the college.” 


To be versatile
As a line in the Analects suggests, a man should not be confined in some certain fields, but rather, develop in a whole dimension. This is also a line Professor Chen admired much and what he expected from Peking University students.


Professor Chen agreed that the society in the future is in need of talents with comprehensive quality, who have excellent ability of academic research, management skills and undertaking spirit. In order to attain to this, he held that both students themselves and the education system should strive side by side. He also advised that students pay more attention to their social skills and never be a bookworm, and that the university should provide the environment where students can get more connected with the society.


Professor Chen is a versatile person himself. Crazy about composition in his college year, he once set up a traditional music band. He also loves playing table tennis, volleyball and the game of go.


Research as martial art

Professor Chen is engaged in a myriad of areas. He was into reading books about martial arts and even founded a martial arts club in his college year. 


"Practically, doing research is like practicing martial arts," said Professor Chen. "The first thing is innovation which is the vitality of scientific research. As for martial arts, only by innovation of the moves can we remain invincible. The second thing is the down-to-earth spirit. Just like Neigong in martial arts, scientific research should be carried forward step by step."


Professor Chen said when asked about his contribution to physics: “Have I made contributions? If I have, they are trivial. You should report more about other Changjiang scholars. They made greater devotions than I did.”

Professor Chen undertook other obligations as a university administrator. “But I will not give up scientific research,” said Chen. “Because it benefits the college, and it is where my interest lies.”



Written by: Chen Runxi

Edited by: Zhu Wenjia

Source: People's Daily Online