An Appreciation of Physicist Fang Lizhi

Physicist Fang Lizhi, who died in April, became most widely known for his year-long refuge in the American embassy in Beijing, beginning on June 5th, 1989. In China Quarterly and the Forum on International Physics Newsletter, James H. Williams surveyed Fang’s earlier years of resistance to the political abuse of science. From an adaptation republished at the American Physical Society’s Forum on Physics and Society:

[…] When asked by a reporter if his “four principles of academic freedom” might be seen as contradicting the regime’s “Four Upholds” (the socialist path, dictatorship of the proletariat, CCP leadership, and the leading role of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought), Fang responded: “Is it possible that science, democracy, creativity, and independence are in conflict with the Four Upholds? If so, it’s because the Four Upholds advocate the opposite of science, which is superstition; the opposite of democracy, which is dictatorship; the opposite of creativity, which is conservatism; and the opposite of independence, which is dependency.”

[…] Fang’s research focused on the structure and evolution of the early universe, the formation of galaxies, and the role of dark energy and dark matter. The range of phenomena he was conversant with was extremely broad, from quantum processes to the expansion of the universe. The bulk of his papers might best be characterized as observational cosmology, in that they took the limited data available from astronomical observations – mostly, the spectral lines of light emitted eons ago from impossibly distant objects – and applied many kinds of rigorous mathematical analyses to them, to tease out the patterns and test which theoretical models were consistent or inconsistent with the data. One of Fang’s great skills in science was to recognize the patterns and underlying dynamics of the universe given the observed data, and then to explain it to people in a very simple and direct way. This was perhaps his greatest skill as an observer of Chinese society as well.

Writing shortly after Fang’s death in April, Perry Link also described the connection between the physicist’s work and political views, summarising the arguments he had contributed to a co-authored book review. From The New York Review of Books:

He was good at explaining how, for him, concepts of human rights grew out of science. In an essay in these pages, he named five axioms of science that had led him toward human rights: 1. “Science begins with doubt,” whereas in Mao’s China students were taught to begin with fixed beliefs. 2. Science stresses independence of judgment, not conformity to the judgment of others. 3. “Science is egalitarian”; no one’s subjective view starts ahead of anyone else’s in the pursuit of objective truth. 4. Science needs a free flow of information, and cannot thrive in a system that restricts access to information. 5. Scientific truths, like human rights principles, are universal; they do not change when one crosses a political border.

Fang’s stay in the U.S. embassy was brought back into the spotlight soon after his death by the escape of Chen Guangcheng, who also received shelter there. See ‘Chen Guangcheng Speaks from New York‘ and ‘“Free Citizen”, Uncertain Future‘, at CDT.