The science and beauty of the universe

Updated 2016-11-28 15:35:19 Xinhua

Astrophysicist Zhang Shuangnan likes traditional Chinese deep-fried dough sticks with Western coffee for breakfast before he starts work on studying why a black hole gets "angry."

Sometimes he finds time to ponder why a woman is pretty, or to write poems on gravitational waves or quantum entanglement.

"All these things are fun," says the 54-year-old director of the Key Laboratory of Particle Astrophysics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) with a roguish grin.

Zhang's expertise is in neutron stars, black holes, galaxies and the evolution of the universe through astronomical observation and theoretical calculation. On the side he develops astronomical instruments for space.

But he also tries to explain science to the public from the angle of beauty, and to study beauty in a scientific way.

Zhang is in charge of two important projects. One is a probe on China's first space lab, Tiangong-2, to detect the polarization of gamma-ray bursts, and the other is a space telescope, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), to be launched soon.


Scientists owe the discovery of a kind of "violent tempered" black hole in the Milky Way to medicine.

And it was Zhang who made this cross-disciplinary discovery.

Zhang did his post-doctoral research in the United States, and applied for a job in a hospital. He studied how doctors get medical images.

He later worked for NASA, and in 1992, he used medical image software to deal with astronomical observation data. Thus he created the earth occultation imaging technology, which he publicized in authoritative academic journal Nature in 1994.

The unconventional scientist used this method to analyze data sent back by a gamma-ray astronomical satellite. "Suddenly, one day I found a new gamma-ray celestial body, which was the brightest object in space at that time. I was astounded -- I knew it was a big discovery," Zhang recalls.

What he discovered was the second micro-quasar found in the Milky Way. It was a violent, jet-spouting black hole with seven times the mass of the Sun.

Zhang and his colleagues created a method to measure the rotation of the black holes, drawing great attention in academic circles. He was the lead author of an article on black holes published in the journal Science in 2000.

"The study of black holes constantly surprises me. It's challenging and very interesting," Zhang says.

Although Zhang shared a group award from NASA for their discovery on black holes, he was barred from leading a satellite project, as NASA forbids Chinese scientists from leading key projects.

He left NASA, and accepted an invitation from his former Chinese tutor, Li Tipei, an academician of the CAS, to help develop the HXMT telescope in 2002.

The research and development of the space telescope was a tortuous process lasting more than a decade. Suffering from backaches as a result of long hours, Zhang says he is under so much pressure with its imminent launch and has so many things to deal with that he has no time to feel excited.

Meanwhile, the probe developed by Zhang's team on the Tiangong-2 space lab, which was launched in September, is working well in the search for gamma-ray bursts, the strongest explosions in the universe.

But Zhang also wants to try something outside the original plan. He and his team have succeeded in locating signals from the Crab Pulsar by analyzing the data sent back by the probe.

"This is the first time a Chinese space astronomical instrument has been used to study the remaining pulsar left by the supernova explosion recorded by the ancient Chinese nearly 1,000 years ago," Zhang says.

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