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A Scientist for Science's Sake: Huang Kun


Near the end of a science career that has spanned more than half a century, 84-year-old Huang Kun, an internationally renowned solid-state physicist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), received the ultimate recognition from his home country on February 2 in Beijing.

Huang and Peking University professor Wang Xuan were the two recipients of the 2001 Supreme Scientific and Technological (S&T) Award, the nation's highest award for achievement in the field of science.

The two received the awards, and separate checks for 5 million yuan (US$602,000), from President Jiang Zemin during a ceremony in Beijing's Great Hall of the People that was broadcast on the country's national television network.

The S&T Award was a well-deserved reward for his great contributions to solid-state and semiconductor physics in China, Huang's fellow researchers said.

One of the pioneers of semiconductor physics research in China, Huang's name graces an impressive handful of theories that still play an important role in modern physics.

In the 1940s, he was the first to develop the theory that impurities and defects in solid materials result in diffuse X-ray scattering, which was named "Huang's Scattering."

Later in the 1950s, Huang and his collaborators authored the important quantum theory of multi-phonon transitions eventually known as Huang-Pekar's Theory.

Many of Huang's pioneering achievements have contributed greatly to the development of physics both as an academic discipline and as a basis for technological advancement, according to the selection committee of the S&T Award.

For example, "Huang's Scattering" theory has found direct application in studies of solid micro-defects. And his research on crystal lattice dynamics has played a key role in the development of today's IT (information technology) industry.

But these achievements do not come easily, Huang said.

Born in 1919 in Beijing, Huang graduated from Yenching University in 1941, studied at Edinburgh University in Scotland and obtained his PhD from the University of Bristol in England in 1948.

He later went on to teach physics at Peking University and became a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 1955.

He is also a senior researcher at the CAS Institute of Semiconductors.

Huang attributes much of his success to the talented instructors who helped him with his early academic research.

One of these instructors was Max Born, a physicist at Edinburgh University in Britain.

Born invited Huang to co-write a book on crystal structure based on the theories of quantum mechanics in 1948.

After four years of intensive study, Huang completed his portion of the book, Dynamical Theory of Crystal Lattices, in which he elaborated on Born's theories and explored a number of his own ideas.

When Born read the script, Huang recalls, Born wrote in a letter to Albert Einstein, "The book has gone beyond my own theories. I am delighted that I can even understand the book, which was co-authored by Huang and myself."

Born was not alone in his praise for the work. At a seminar in Germany in 1989, a professor from the physics department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Peking University physicist Zhang Shulin: "I keep the book by Huang on my desk and refer to it as my bible."

However, Huang seems to accept the praise with humility.

"That book is not especially outstanding," he says, adding that while his early work was full of original ideas, his later studies were more profound and specific.

Huang came back to China in 1951 to begin what would become a distinguished 26-year career teaching in the physics department of Peking University during which he taught eventual CAS members Gan Zizhao, Qin Guogang and Xia Jianbai.

Qin Guogang, a 1957 graduate of Peking University, still clearly remembers Huang's classes he took nearly half a century ago. "I had expected an old professor to come into the classroom. Instead, here was this guy who looked to be in his 30s and was able to make his students enjoy learning. Besides gaining knowledge, we were also able to see science's internal beauty."

What made him such a good teacher? Huang says he saw teaching as another kind of research, which prompted him to spend as many as 50 to 60 hours preparing a single six-hour class.

Huang is regarded in the academic field as a scientist for science's sake. When asked what he got out of science, he answered calmly, "Fun. What is the source of fun? First, you have a problem to solve. Second, you have to come up with a solution. But the solution is never obvious - it requires creativity.

"I do not like to jump on the bandwagon," he continues. "I appreciate originality."

According to his fellow scientists, Huang seldom consults existing documents because he prefers to emphasize his own research. Professor Zhu Bangfen, the man who co-authored with Huang the book Polar Optical Vibration Modes in Semiconductor Superlattices, said Huang liked to start out from fundamental scientific theories and basic concepts and then reach conclusions independently.

But Huang's reputation is not built purely on originality. He is also known for being precise and extremely disciplined.

This earnestness in conducting research has made him famous among his colleagues and students.

Nobel prize winner C. N. Yang, once Huang's roommate at Southwest Joint University in Yunnan Province, said: "The most important year of my life was not the year I spent in America but the year when I had Huang as my roommate."

Yang recalls that the two of them would discuss physics questions into the wee hours because Huang could not sleep if he found any flaws in their ideas.

Xia Jianbai, who was elected as an academician of the CAS last year, has been Huang's student and friend for years.

"To be frank, I am a bit afraid of him even now, afraid of his strictness and prudence," Xia says jokingly.

"Generally speaking, the more achievements, the better for researchers. But Huang asks us to take into consideration not the quantity of our achievements but the quality," he said.

Though it may be difficult to believe, Huang's life is not all about science. He often climbs mountains in his spare time in order to stay healthy.

Science remains the octogenarian's central obsession. With the S&T Award under his belt, he shows no signs of retiring.

"If a researcher does not involve himself in specific research, he can hardly do any creative work," Huang said. "I am just like a soldier who likes to fire bullets at the frontier in the battle field."

(China Daily February 25, 2002)

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Wang Xuan, Innovator of Chinese Printing Industry

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Great Breakthroughs Made in Science

Nobel Laureate Thinks Highly of Chinese Scientists

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