Theoretical physicist Janet Hung Ling-yan, a 34-year-old Hongkonger, is shining new light on a puzzle that eluded Albert Einstein.
And she’s doing so as a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, blazing a trail for other young scientists from Hong Kong.
During post-doctoral studies at Harvard University in 2013, Hung and collaborators stumbled upon some surprising properties of a gateway connecting two different worlds while fiddling around with Einsteinian equations.
The portal, buried in a heap of formulas, links the gravity governing stars and galaxies to quantum entanglement at the atomic level, which Einstein dubbed “spooky action”. A mathematical hint in Einstein’s equations describing gravity, which Einstein himself had not spotted, shed new light on the missing link between his general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.
The discovery took Hung and other physicists further in the long and difficult search for a “united theory” capable of explaining everything.
Two years ago, at the age of 32, Hung started her professional academic career as a full-time professor in Fudan’s physics department, after being recruited through the mainland’s Thousand Talents Programme.
She has authored several influential papers that have received more than 1,000 citations, rare for a young theoretical physicist, and the outstanding research has won her awards including Hong Kong’s Qiu Shi Outstanding Young Scholar Award last year.
Hung was born and raised in Hong Kong. After graduating from Belilios Public School, she completed her undergraduate degree at Oxford University, before obtaining her master’s and PhD at Cambridge University. She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and at Harvard, in the United States.
Hong Kong has produced many world famous scientists, including mathematician Yau Shing-tung, who received the Fields Medal in 1982, and Nobel physics laureates Daniel Chee Tsui and Charles Kuen Kao, who has been described as the “father of fibre optics communications”. All three were born on the mainland, educated in Hong Kong and spent the most important and productive parts of their careers in the West.
In the past, few young Hong Kong scholars gave serious consideration to working in mainland China. There were so many concerns, including low salaries, a polluted environment and a lack of academic freedom. Even the Hong Kong government, which has sought to encourage local students to “go north”, does not give a number on its website for those who have done so.
Hung, who visited the mainland many times when she studying in Hong Kong, said she felt a bit “uncertain” after accepting Fudan’s offer, with her biggest concern being the management of guanxi, the network of interpersonal relationships that plays an important role in Chinese society.
There have been some edgy moments, with students complaining in an anonymous letter about her terrible Putonghua and asking her to teach in English instead. But Hung said she blended in quickly.
“It is not too difficult to overcome the differences, as long as I can think from their position,” she said.
Professor Cheng Shiu-yuen, a former dean of science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who is now working at Tsinghua University’s Mathematical Studies Centre in Beijing, said Hung’s choice might signal a change, with Hong Kong science students who previously looked to pursue their careers in the West or Hong Kong now viewing the mainland as an option.
In the US, for instance, federal government spending on research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product has been declining since the global financial crisis of 2007-08. That has resulted in a shortage of jobs in academic research, with the situation particularly bad in areas such as fundamental physics, and long waits for tenured positions.
Meanwhile, China’s investment in research and development has grown rapidly and the central government has created many new jobs for talented researchers overseas that offer competitive salaries and housing subsidies. Some top universities, such as Fudan, promote promising young post-doctoral scholars like Hung straight to full professor, allowing them to focus on new discoveries rather than job security.
Hung said the biggest obstacle preventing more young Hong Kong researchers from working on the mainland could be a lack of understanding. She said that when she was studying in Europe and North America, she was impressed with some mainland students also studying physics overseas.
“They are brilliant scientists,” she said. “If they can consider returning to the mainland, why can’t I? I want to work with these people, that’s an important reason why I ended up in Shanghai.”
Wan Yidun, now also a young professor in Fudan’s physics department, was one of the mainland students who collaborated with Hung, although they rarely met in person.
“We used Skype to communicate,” he said. “We wrote formulas in short form, a special language only we could understand. Our communication in Skype, if printed out, could be as thick as a book.”
Wan suggested Hung work at Fudan. He said he was deeply impressed by her ability to think and work independently, and knew it would enable her to continue to produce important, original research on the mainland.
“Janet (Hung) is a brilliant theoretical physicist,” Wan said. “She was born to make great discoveries.”
China has built many advanced scientific facilities in recent years, including some the world’s strongest magnetic field generators and coldest atom manipulation platforms, something that also impressed Hung.
She has recently been collaborating with a research team at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province, to bring her theoretical work to life. She said some exotic physical properties of matter, which had important implications in cutting-edge technology such as quantum computing, could now be realised clearly in experiments, and her collaborators in Hefei were able to create and measured such properties.
“To a theoretical physicist this is truly exciting,” she said.
Professor Peng Xinhua, one of Hung’s collaborators in Hefei, said they used magnetic resonance to manipulate interactions within a group of atoms.
“In this field of research we are as good as the best laboratories in the West,” she said. “Hung has a very active mindset. She often engages in lively discussions with students, effortlessly manoeuvring from one branch of physical research to another.
“Our collaboration has just begun. We expect to achieve some breakthroughs together.”
Professor Raymond C. K. Chan, a Hongkonger working at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Psychology in Beijing, said he would encourage more Hong Kong science students to consider working on the mainland.
“It is a good opportunity for young Hong Kong researchers to consider taking up an academic post in mainland China,” he said. “The opportunities for research here are greater than those in Hong Kong.”
Chan has been studying the structural and functional networks of human brains and their association with cognitive and psychological processes in healthy individuals and those with mental disorders.
He said there was no problem with the level of hardware support for his field of research on the mainland.
“But what we need is the ‘software’, or specialists who can ask and answer an important scientific question, rather than just the ‘hardware’,” he said.
Chan said young Hong Kong scholars should bear in mind that they might be paid less on the mainland and they would also have to adjust to differences in food, climate, air pollution and language.
Hung, who lives in an 800 sq ft, two-bedroom apartment on campus, said her salary and the funding she received was more than she could spend.
She said she had been deeply influenced by her mother, a teacher, and spent her leisure hours reading history books and playing the piano.
Wan said he believed most young Hong Kong scientists would find it easy to work on the mainland nowadays, “as long as they stay away from politics”.