We usually think about scientists primarily in terms of their scientific work; that is, in terms of the work they do in helping us make sense of what we observe in the natural world around us. However, a key part of science is a willingness to follow the facts, and to be willing to discard even the most deeply-held beliefs if the facts show clearly that the beliefs are not true. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that throughout history, many great scientists have also challenged authority in realms outside of science. Galileo is the most famous example, but in modern times the challenge has often come from scientists facing authoritarian or totalitarian governments. Einstein and many scientists fled Europe in the lead-up to World War II, and then used their skills to help in the war effort both scientifically and politically. Physicist Andrei Sakharov was a leading dissident and voice for change in the Soviet Union. And in China, many scientists have taken up dissident roles, perhaps none more significantly than astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who is the main reason I’ve sent this e-mail today.
Dr. Fang passed away on April 6. He did not make a lot of news in recent years, after he was forced to seek asylum in the United States following the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and the government massacre of civilians in 1989. But his inspirational leadership to China will never be forgotten, and he was well-known enough around the world to have made the cover of Time International, shortly before the events that led to the Tiananmen demonstrations. If you don’t know much about him, I urge you to at least read the New York Times obituary about him, and you can of course find much more information about him with a quick web search.
I also happen to have had a personal connection to Dr. Fang. In Spring 1989, I taught on the “Semester at Sea” program, which takes a group of college students around the world. As faculty, we were supposed to arrange some special events for the students. Thanks to my CU-Boulder colleague and mentor Dr. Dick McCray, who knew Fang well, I was able to arrange to take a group of students to meet with Fang in Beijing at the end of March, 1989. The events that started the Tiananmen Square demonstrations began just a couple weeks later, and I had the opportunity to go back to Beijing and witness some of the demonstrations first-hand. I wrote a detailed article about my experiences back in 1990, and I have posted the article and some of my photos for anyone interested. I hope you will find them of interest.
For those of you in the Washington, DC area: I hope you will attend the US Science Festival this coming weekend (April 28/29) at the Washington Convention Center. There’s a full schedule of great events at the Festival web site. And if you come, I hope you’ll stop by to see me at one or more of the following:
- Friday, April 27, 10:45-11:30, Room 150: I will be presenting Max Goes to the Moon for elementary/middle students for the “Nifty Fifty” program; advance reservation required.
- Saturday, April 28, 11:50-12:35, Family Science Stage: I will be presenting my newest children’s book, The Wizard Who Saved the World, open to the public.
- Saturday evening “Star Party,” April 28, 6:30-10:30pm, National Air and Space Museum: Jeff Goldstein and I will be offering tours of the Voyage Scale Model Solar System (which he and I worked on together) before sunset and additional talks later in the evening.
- Sunday, April 29, 11-noon, Franklin Stage: I will present a talk aimed at grownups entitled “Living in the Real World: The Intersection of Science and Life.”
- And throughout the weekend, I’ll be at the Big Kid Science booth in the Book Fair, in a space shared with Jeff Goldstein and the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.
For those in the western United States: Reminder that you can see an annular solar eclipse in the late afternoon of Sunday, May 20.
For those in the Los Angeles area: I will be at the Spanish Book Festival LéaLa on Saturday May 12, 5:00 pm in the Agusto Monterroso room, to present the Spanish edition of The Wizard Who Saved the World (El mago que salvó al mundo).
Finally, a big thank you to all of you who came to our premier of the Max Goes to the Moon planetarium show, which opened with two sold-out shows with special guest astronaut Alvin Drew. Also a big thank you to the Colorado PTA, who have just finished helping with a state-wide donation of The Wizard Who Saved the World, sending a library copy to each of the 1,000+ public elementary schools in the state of Colorado.