China Underground > China Book Library: Uncover Rich Chinese Literature and Art > Interview with Scientist, Professor & Poet Yun Wang

Interview with Scientist, Professor & Poet Yun Wang

Yun Wang is a Senior Research Scientist at the California Institute of Technology, and a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Oklahoma. 

Yun Wang originally from Gaoping, a small town near Zunyi, in Guizhou Province, China, is a poet and cosmologist. She received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Tsinghua University in Beijing, after which she moved to the United States and obtained her master’s and a doctorate in physics, from Carnegie Mellon University. A Senior Research Scientist at California Institute of Technology since 2015, and a Professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Physics and Astronomy until 2017, she has published over 100 refereed papers, most recently specializing in probing the dark energy in the Universe, with particular attention to the use of supernovae and galaxy redshift surveys as cosmological probes, studies of the cosmic microwave background anisotropy, and the measurement of cosmological parameters. Yun Wang has developed strategies for optimizing future surveys to probe dark energy, created a mission concept for the NASA-DOE Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM), the Joint Efficient Dark-energy Investigation (JEDI), and served as the Principal Investigator of JEDI. She is the author of the cosmology graduate textbook Dark Energy (Wiley/VCH, 2010). In 2012 she was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society. She is the author of two poetry books: The Book of Totality (Salmon Poetry Press, 2015) and The Book of Jade (Story Line Press, 2002), winner of the 15th Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Her two poetry chapbooks are Horse by the Mountain Stream (Word Palace Press, 2016) and The Carp (Bull Thistle Press, 1994), and she is the translator of Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po (White Pine Press, 2019). Wang’s poems have been published in numerous literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Salamander Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and International Quarterly. Her translations of classical Chinese poetry have been published in Poetry Canada Review, Willow Springs, Connotation Press, and elsewhere.

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What prompted you to study physics? Have you always had a clear intention to follow a career in science?

As a child, I loved math and was fascinated by how things worked in nature. Even though I also loved poetry, my father advised me to pursue a career in science, so that I can be relatively immune from political persecutions. I chose the Modern Physics major at Tsinghua University, since that sounded most exciting to me. I went to Tsinghua when I was 16, and spent five amazing years there. During that time, I decided that the goal of my life is to pursue Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. This led me to a career in physics and astronomy, in particular, cosmology, since nothing is closer to Truth than the science of how the Universe works.


What were the biggest challenges you encountered during your research? What were the discoveries that motivated and stimulated you to deepen your studies?

The biggest challenge was the ubiquitous sexism in the field, often implicit and subtle, and sometimes blatant and outrageous. I once tried to join a scientific discussion that two male colleagues were having since I had worked on that same topic. They actually just looked at each other and smirked, and ignored me. I am happy to say that I am now much more successful than either of them in the field. A public lecture on cosmology at Tsinghua by Prof. Fang Li-Zhi around 1982 left a big impression on me. I was astounded to discover that the whole Universe can be studied, and there is a research area called cosmology, to study the origin and evolution of the Universe. I was selected for graduate study in the U.S. by Prof. T.D. Lee’s CUSPEA (China-U.S. Physics Examination and Admission) program in 1984, and went to Carnegie Mellow University in 1985 to study cosmology, and got my Ph.D. in Physics in 1991. In 1992, the anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation were discovered by the NASA space mission, Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). The CMB is the afterglow left behind by the Big Bang, the extremely hot and explosive beginning of our Universe. These tiny inhomogeneities in the temperature of the CMB are the imprints of the primordial seeds for cosmic large-scale structure, predicted by the theory of the very early Universe. I was stunned by this confirmation of a seemly speculative theory, and became interested in focusing my research on the interpretation of observational data, and the exploration of possible future data that can significantly advance our understanding of the Universe.


Can you introduce and tell us more about your work and your research that focuses on exploring the nature of dark energy, the mysterious cause for the accelerated expansion of our universe?

In 1998, astronomers discovered that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating today, contrary to expectations—cosmic expansion should be decelerating today if there is only matter in the Universe. Matter gravitates and slows cosmic expansion. The observational discovery of cosmic acceleration means that there is more to the Universe than previously thought. There could be a new energy component in the Universe, causing the cosmic expansion to speed up, since, unlike matter, energy does not gravitate. Or perhaps our theory of gravity, Einstein’s General Relativity, is incomplete and needs to be modified. Even now, we are still in the dark on the nature of the observed cosmic acceleration, which we dub “dark energy”. Much of my research in the past two decades have focused on dark energy. I accepted one of the invitations I received to write a graduate textbook on dark energy (it was published by Wiley VCH in 2010), and I was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2012 for my leadership in dark energy research. My work on dark energy has been wide-ranging, as well as in-depth. I established the framework for analyzing observational data without making theoretical assumptions about dark energy and identified the observational data sets required to illuminate the nature of dark energy. I then created concepts for space missions that can deliver such data sets. It has been a long and exhilarating journey.

You are a cosmologist, but also a poet. Can you tell us more about these parallel careers? What role do poetry and science play in your life? Where did your passion for writing come from? How do you keep the balance between both? So are they complementary, one the extension of the other?

I was born into poetry. My father recited ancient Chinese poems to calm me when I cried as a baby. It worked every time. When I was older, he taught me more classical Chinese poetry and poetics. I started writing poetry when I was twelve years old, triggered by the spectacular beauty of nature in my hometown of Gaoping in Zunyi, China. Back then, Gaoping was unspoiled in its idyllic rural landscape, sparkling with crystal river and streams bordered by abundant wild flowers, and surrounded by wave-shaped green mountains. Thus it’s natural that I am both a cosmologist and a poet—both are integral in my pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. I have never felt the need to balance poetry and science in my life, since they are both organic and essential in my life. I write poetry when I must when I am electrified by inspiration or compelled by strong emotions. Science is a more constant part of my consciousness, since I have a major role to play in my field, and I love my research. Not surprisingly, I have received much more recognition in science than in poetry, since I am an “outsider” poet, not plugged into the academic network of poetry. Many people look up my poetry because they know me as a scientist, and are happily surprised that I am a well-published poet, with three full-length poetry books including two award-winning ones.


Do you have a poem that you are most attached to? Can you share with us the story that inspired you to write it and why it became special for you?

Here is a recent poem titled “Immortality” (from “The Book of Mirrors”, published by White Pine Press in 2021), which I wrote in memory of my parents, trying to make sense of the brevity of human life in an infinite Universe:

My father washed his only shirt at night
dried it by the fire in a haunted house
by a white river in the mountains
He pours osmanthus black tea 
into blue porcelain cups in my dreams
five years after his deat

My mother gazed at Venus at dawn
as she cleaned chamber pots 
for wealthy classmates
She bought me a diamond ring
a few months before she died

She had wanted one all her life
I watch peonies of white clouds 
bloom in the Maya blue sky
contemplate the filaments of galaxies
and the voids they frame
The Universe expands
My son promises to build me a spaceship

You also translate classical Chinese poetry. What would you like people to understand from poetry? From your point of view, what makes poetry, even if from the ancient past, current and present? How can reading poems enrich our daily life? Can poems be therapeutic?

Indeed. I think classical Chinese poetry is one of the greatest treasures of human civilization. I am fortunate to have been born into it, and well educated on it. As someone who has published poetry in both Chinese and English, I feel that I can make a valuable contribution by translating my favorite classical Chinese poets. My book of translation, “Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po” was published by White Pine Press in 2019. I am now working on a book of translation of Li Bai’s poems. Li Bai and Su Dong-Po are my favorite classical Chinese poets. Poetry adds a dimension to life that can enrich and enlighten human existence. The best poems are timeless. They are therapeutic in expanding our consciousness, enlivening our imagination, and connecting us to the great river of human existence in its most powerful form—poetry. 


Poetry and science in the age of social media. Which are the main benefits and which are the disadvantages? What is your opinion about the way the internet and social media are shaping the world and these fields?

The obvious benefit of social media is that it facilitates fast and broad communication, across all kinds of boundaries. It has facilitated the effective dissemination of scientific knowledge and discoveries. It has enabled people to easily find the poetry that they like, regardless of their taste. I think the main disadvantage is that the vast ocean of information out there contains both good and bad, truth and lies. One must be critical in evaluating claims, and be guided by evidence and sound judgment. Overall, I think the benefits outweigh the negative effects.

The theme for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2022 is, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. Are women in the field of STEM still facing more challenges and discrimination compared to males? What has been achieved and what significant challenges are still to be met?

I like that theme; there is no sustainable future without true gender quality. Women in STEM fields do still face tremendous challenges as well as subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination compared to males. It is very difficult for a woman to push to the top of the field while also having a full life, since women carry most of the domestic responsibilities. What has been achieved at present is that open sexism is no longer acceptable (or even legal). The significant challenge is that society at large is still rather sexist. Both men and women are still often biased against women who aspire to great accomplishments in any field. Ambitious men are praised; ambitious women are often demonized. We have a long way to go in fighting for true gender equality.

The pandemic has put a strain on the whole planet earth. Women have been most disadvantaged by this situation. Many are taking their lives back from all angles. What advice would you give to them?

Reach out to each other; connect with friends, so that you are not alone in your struggle. Friends can lift each other up, and help each other. 

Photo courtesy of Yun Wang

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