A  Modern  Physicist  with the  Wisdom  of  Classical  Philosophers

On first sight, Noah Fanqi Yuan may look like any postgraduate student of physics who talk seriously about his research studies. Before long however, wit and humor pervade the conversation to show the wisdom, breadth and depth of a well-rounded young intellectual. Behind his average height, slightly chubby build and occasional hilarity is a holistic personality reminiscent of classical philosophers: from his specialization in superconductivity to being the lead actor in experiential drama, from history and literature to foreign languages, Noah never fails to give surprises.

Having completed MPhil and then PhD at HKUST in June 2017, the Hubei-born physics major had a five-year journey of discovery in Hong Kong. Then a brilliant undergraduate student at Wuhan University which has partnerships with HKUST, Noah was invited by HKUST professors for student exchange in Hong Kong and was accepted for postgraduate studies before graduation. “HKUST is a young university with an energetic faculty; there are lots of potentials here,” said Noah.

The path is not always rosy however. Expecting to explore the universe’s mystery with cosmology, he found himself surrounded by gurus in more practical areas such as condensed matter physics. After some struggles, Noah learned to strike a balance and appreciate the beauty of practical studies. Now a specialist in topological superconductor for quantum computers, he is excited that the area combines in-depth theories with applications to enable relatively quick results, verifications and updates.

Noah foresees a promising future regarding topological superconductors’ applications in quantum computers. “With much stronger capacities than traditional computers, quantum computers boast the advantage of powerful encryptions which could hardly be decrypted. It will not take long for quantum computers to replace supercomputers.”

Leveraging the Momentum of Research Excellence

Having achieved encouraging interim results in research after only two years, Noah speaks positively about HKUST’s research platform which features not only top-notch facilities but a hub of world-renowned scholars. Through HKUST’s Prof Kam Tuen Law, Prof Rolf Lortz and the HKUST Jockey Club Institute for Advanced Study, Noah had the chance to meet with MIT’s Prof Patrick Lee and Prof Liang Fu, Kyoto University’s Prof Masatoshi Sato, ETH Zurich’s Prof Manfred Sigrist and other international scholars. He had widened his perspectives through conferences and meetings at Korea’s POSTECH, Japan’s Kyoto University and France’s ENS, as well as at the University of Colorado Boulder and Shanghai Fudan University’s summer schools. Riding on the momentum, Noah’s next destination is MIT where he will pursue post-doctoral studies.

Noah enjoys a good relationship with his supervisor Prof Kam Tuen Law. “Prof Law gives me guidance and at the same time lots of freedom and encouragement. He is like a mentor and a friend; we both like jokes with weird gags that other people may not be ready to appreciate. Besides my academic growth, he cares about my personal development as well. However, I won’t say that he is like a father to me; that sounds way too old for him,” said Noah half-jokingly.

From Dim-sum to Star-gazing

Working closely with a team of ten, he often goes hiking and barbequing with the gang. “Somehow we often start a conversation about play and then end up talking about work. The nine mainlanders fail to learn Cantonese but we successfully turned the only local teammate into a Mandarin speaker. I’ve also become a lover of Guangdong dim-sum especially Zha Liang (炸兩) (note: rice noodle rolls stuffed with crispy dough stick),” he noted. Whereas he shares flats with mainland students who often help one another regarding daily chores, he appreciates local students for being open-minded and sociable.

Noah has also found a hidden germ of HKUST: At the University’s seaside campus, he discovered the pleasure of star-gazing. “My friends and I went to the rooftop to see stars with professional telescopes for entire evenings. The full moon in Autumn is equally amazing.”

The Emergence of an Artistic and Humanistic Character

Towards the end of the one-hour interview, the physicist’s artistic side gradually emerged when he had the chance to talk about his passion for drama and performance. He spent much of his undergraduate years both on stage and in the backstage with the drama club of Wuhan University’s physics department which reaped awards. He is also into experimental theater which breaks through the invisible ‘fourth wall’ and directly communicates with the audience, as he was the lead actor in the Chinese avant-garde play Rhinoceros in Love (【戀愛的犀牛】).

Under the stage, he enjoys reading scripts of thought-provoking plays. They are not limited to traditional Chinese plays such as Lao She’s Teahouse (老舍【茶館】) or Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm (曹禺【雷雨】). One of them is Copenhagen written by Michael Frayn based on a meeting between two Nobel laureates in physics, Werner Heisenberg who later worked for the Nazis during the Second World War, and Niels Bohr who rescued refugees from the Nazis. Noah’s love of the play, which explores profound ethical issues in relation to science, reflects the humanistic and philosophical nature of the reader himself.

“I love reading books about a wide variety of subjects ranging from literature, history and economics,” Noah remarked. In fact Noah was given this western first name by a French instructor, as the talented student took classes in French.

It is perhaps not surprising then that Noah’s role model is Ding Xi Lin (丁西林) born in late Qing Dynasty, one of the rare Chinese talents who acquired a Master of Science in Physics at UK’s Birmingham University in the early 1910s and became Peking University’s physics professor. Ding was also a playwright, Dean of Arts, and the National Library’s Chief Librarian.

As to the question about relationships between academia and drama, one would have expected standard answers such as improved communications, presentation and teaching skills. Rather, Noah replied with a comparison filled with wisdom, “Both physics and drama are about imagination and creativity. As an actor, I take on the role of the character and fantasize what happens to and around him; as a physicist, I imagine the scenario and the factors behind phenomena. Actually the word ‘scenario’, often used in physics, was derived from the theater.”

The PhD graduate in physics certainly masters the art of concluding the conversation with a meaningful and memorable finale.