by Jean Loo Qingwen
Driven by curiosity, IAS Senior Fellow Prof Kerson Huang is inspired to share new discoveries in science and literature.
ost people would probably regard physics and Chinese literature as parallel fields with little in common, but for Prof Kerson Huang, a leading authority in physics who has authored two translations of classic literary works, it is readily apparent what unifies them. “For me, it is quite natural to see what they have in common – their sense of beauty,” he explains.
SEEKING THE TRUTH
Prof Huang’s life has been dedicated to explicating and sharing the truths of science and literature. The Chinese-American physicist-poet holds the post of Professor of Physics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he has been a faculty member since 1957. In November 2009, he accepted an appointment as Nanyang Professor for two years, and is currently a visiting Professor at NTU’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS).
Over the course of his five-month sojourn at IAS, Prof Huang’s engagements have included advising a number of projects related to biophysics, high energy physics and statistical mechanics; discussing the establishment of a new Centre for the History of Science; and speaking at the International Science Youth Forum 2010. Earlier this year, he also delivered an IAS Public Lecture on “The Roots of Chinese Civilisation” in both English and Chinese. “I’m enjoying my time here,” he says. “It’s interesting to be in a country that is developing a culture of pure research, which will be very important in the long run.”
AN EARLY LOVE OF SCIENCE
Prof Huang was born in Nanning, China, in 1928. As a child, he did not take an easy path to discovering his passion for learning; growing up in Manila, the Philippines, during the Japanese Occupation, he was unable to go to school, and so turned to studying physics at home with the guidance of a tutor. “Physics is absorbing and beautiful because in one equation, it can explain to us how the whole universe works,” he says. “An equation may be simple in its statement, but complicated enough to describe the way of the world, when we study its details.”
Following the end of the war, Prof Huang enrolled in MIT and dove headlong into the challenges of higher academia. After completing his PhD at MIT in 1953, he joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University before returning to his alma mater in 1957 as a member of its Department of Physics.
Much of Prof Huang’s teaching and research career has been devoted to high-energy theory and statistical mechanics, subjects he has explored in a series of textbooks that have become foundational texts in the field. “The nature of physics is beautiful,” he recalls of his years as an educator, “and what I’ve always tried to do is to present its truths to students in an exciting way.”
THE PROBLEM OF FOLDS
In 1999, Prof Huang retired from teaching and has since chosen to devote himself to the complexities of biophysics. He is currently working on a long-term project with a team that includes Dr Chew Lock Yue from NTU’s School of Physical & Mathematical Sciences and researchers from the Centre for Applied Mathematics at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
This collaboration began in 2006 and takes a novel approach to the study of protein folding, regarded as one of the most intriguing questions in biophysics. A protein is a sequence of molecules or amino acids; when it is put into water, this sequence will fold into a specific shape that allows it to fit with other molecules, so as to perform certain biological functions.
The team is employing a novel computer-driven model known as Conditioned Self-Avoiding Walk (CSAW) in its investigations. “What we are trying to understand via CSAW is how a protein folds into a shape, what determines that shape, and whether we can engineer it,” he explains. “We hope this statistical approach will lead to a better understanding of protein folding, and so open the door to more refined applications in drug design.”
THE WRITTEN WORD
Besides science, Prof Huang’s other consuming passion has been for the written word. An avid reader of literature, he has penned his own verses since he was a youth. As a postgraduate student at MIT, Prof Huang adapted Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into qijue (??), a classical Chinese verse form with four lines of seven characters each.
Written originally in Persian, Rubaiyat is a selection of 1,000 poems that was translated by FitzGerald into English in 1859. “This work is made up of very beautiful verses with imagery and phraseology in the best Victorian tradition,” explains Prof Huang. “I loved FitzGerald’s translation very much, and so it was natural for me to want to translate it into Chinese.”
Published in 1953, Prof Huang’s adaptation is known for its elegance and emotion. In 1986, the book, long out of print, was republished in Taiwan, and has since won over a new generation of admirers.
DRIVEN BY CURIOSITY
In 1984, Prof Huang embarked on another feat of literary translation. With the help of his wife, Rosemary, he rendered the I Ching (??) into English. Known as the Book of Changes, it dates to the third century BC and comprises a divination system based on traditional philosophy and literature. Having first read the book as a youth, Prof Huang was eager to make its merits more readily available.
And this is precisely what he has been busy doing at NTU – sharing his knowledge and ideas with others. From discussions of scientific theory with colleagues to meeting students on the university’s premier CN Yang Scholars Programme, Prof Huang has been making the most of his time on campus, always with keenness and curiosity.
In words that might apply equally to his love of science and literature, he explains: “Our sense of curiosity is driven by the challenges we are exposed to… There are interesting elements in every question, and if we can find the answer, important implications may arise from our discovery."
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