TUCSON, Ariz. -- One of China’s most prominent dissidents died in Tucson last Friday, a city where he lived more than 20 years in exile teaching physics at the University of Arizona. But his colleagues want to remember him as much for his work in astrophysics as for his political fame.
Professor Fang Lizhi was once considered China’s top astrophysicist. But he never left politics far behind. In the 1980s, he spurred China’s youth to action. Later, he was blamed as a rabble-rouser. His speeches, people say, inspired the protests of Tiananmen Square.
Professor Dian Li teaches Chinese literature at the UA. He was a student in China when he first heard Fang speak. Fang told the students that the government was lying to them about corruption in its own system and about the conditions in the West.
"It was really earth-shaking, very eye-opening for me. I think for all the students who were present because the applause was non-stop," Li said.
The Tiananmen Square protests lasted seven weeks. In June 1989, a military intervention crushed the movement. Fang and his wife hid in the U.S. embassy for 13 months. He faced a potential death penalty by the Chinese. One year later, Fang and his wife left their home country forever, landing in the U.S.
But Fang remained dedicated to his work as a scientist. While teaching astrophysics at the UA, he mentored Chinese foreign students. At least one student a year would come to Tucson from China to study under him and then go back to China to teach and work, says his colleague Professor Shufang Su.
"While mainly a theorist, Fang had also been instrumental in helping the Chinese astronomical community in developing observational astronomy, even after moving to the U.S. He was one of the main collaborators on the successful Beijing-Arizona-Taipei-Connecticut (BATC) survey project, which is what I believe to be one of the longest-running and most influential optical observational astronomical projects using a Chinese-based facility," said Professor Xiaohui Fan, from the astronomy department at the UA.
Professor Ke Chiang Hsieh was also one of Fang's colleagues in Arizona. He’d known Fang since he arrived. But he’d known about him longer than that.
"Basically he raised a generation of outstanding astrophysicists in China while he’s in exile.”
He had been ill for some time but his colleagues say Fang died working at home. He was 76 years old.
"To the last minute he was concerned about who was going to take his class when he was unable to. And I, I’m just totally impressed and totally saddened by his leaving us," Hsieh said.
His family will hold a private funeral this weekend. In May, physicists from around the world will gather in Tucson in his honor.