Interview with Chen Ning YANG II


“There’s a lot in the world vying for one’s attention. If you can make a choice, stick with your goals, and continue to accumulate knowledge in that direction, you can accomplish much.”


One student asked the following:


“What’s the biggest compromise that young people should be willing to make in their scientific pursuits? In other words, where do we draw the line? For instance, there are many today who are willing to renounce their Chinese citizenship in order to seek out further research opportunities. Are there any non-negotiables in the scientific enterprise? What can we afford to give up?”


The following is Professor Yang’s reply:


“This question admits of a fairly complicated response, as there are many factors involved which are clearly out of one’s control, but there’s also an abundance of opportunity. Personally, I think it’s important to consider the value of self-knowledge – that is, possessing a preliminary assessment of your own personality make-up and abilities.


“The following story may help get my point across.


“I expressed a keen interest in mathematics as a young student at Tsinghua University. My father, a professor in the Math Department, used to teach me exercises in Chinese traditional arithmetic including, for example, the ‘chicken and the rabbit in the cage’ scenario (鸡兔同笼) and ‘General Han Xin counts the soldiers’ (韩信点兵). I picked up the ideas rather quickly, which pleased my father greatly. Afterwards, I went to the US, got married, and had three children. I ended up teaching them the same traditional math exercises that I had been taught and was glad to see them pick it up so quickly as well. But looking back, I see a major difference between me and my children: I was able to solve the math problems even a year after being taught, whereas, after the same period of time, my children wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of it.


“This just goes to show that every individual’s brain is uniquely structured. It’s true that every brain has a ‘Save’ application and an ‘Equip’ application, so to speak. But everyone is wired differently: some may take to the knowledge of one particular field and readily commit it to memory; others may be no less intelligent but may pay little attention to that particular field and thus fail to recall what they learned. I think this individuality is a very important concept, because if you totally grasped it, and then conscientiously attend to a particular area of study, you may in the end discover that it’s a direction well worth your pursuit. Even though I wasn’t aware of this in my own youth, I did find myself taking such a liking to mathematics, and, when browsing through some magazines in middle school, I came across articles dealing with ‘permutations’ and ‘combinations’ that piqued my interest. Over time, I accumulated various knowledge which proved useful in my subsequent research career .


“All that to say, if a young person can discover his interests as early as possible, then he, as well as his teachers and parents, ought to cultivate these areas of interest and thereby increase his prospects of future development in the field.


“In my own experience, this ‘cultivation’ does not necessarily have to be academic in nature. Allow me to share another story. There is a professor emeritus of the Physics Department at Beijing University, now in his fifties, who has been an avid stamp collector since the time of his youth. But what made him special, was that he had observed the sheer quantity of stamps out there and realized that they weren’t systematized, and he set out with the express purpose of collecting stamps related to the subject of physics. So he collected stamps that signaled development in physics, such as anything having to do with Einstein, Planck, atomic piles, or semi-conductors. From middle school to college, he managed to amass an impressive collection that he later compiled into the massive, award-winning volume Physics and Physicists on Stamps (邮票上的物理). This story is just a reflection of the fact that there’s a lot in the world vying for one’s attention. If you can make a choice, stick with your goals, and continue to accumulate knowledge in that direction, you can accomplish much.


“Here’s another example. There are probably dozens of biographies in print about Einstein, but the one commonly accepted as the most successful is Abraham Pais’s “Subtle is the Lord—: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein". I am quite familiar with the late Dr. Pais, a physicist whose crowning achievement is generally understood to be his work on Einstein. What was it exactly that made his biography stand out? Part of it was that he himself conducted research in physics. Another important factor was that he didn’t wait until he was in his fifties before he thought of writing this biography. He started paying attention to Einstein as a teenager, and by his twenties he had already come up with the idea of collecting information on him. He began to record the contents and dates of various conversations that he and others had with Einstein. When he turned sixty, he decided no longer to conduct research in physics. Instead, he systematized his materials on Einstein and used them to author what would become his most important book. This demonstrates from a different vantage point that if you discover your interests early on and systematically accumulate knowledge, it may later prove to be a worthwhile investment indeed.”

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