A year ago, on the eve of the March for Science on Washington, DC, Yangyang Cheng—a young US physicist who is not a native English-speaker—wrote one of the most stirring endings I’ve ever run across in an essay:
“I am the great-granddaughter of women with bound feet, for whom learning to read was a revolutionary act. I am a particle physicist at an Ivy League institution, working on the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. On April 22, I will be marching for science, for the promise of science as the great equalizer, for what it has been to me, and for what it can still be to many—to the privileged and the marginalized, to all. To paraphrase Langston Hughes, let science be science again, ‘let it be the dream it used to be.’ ”
The full essay, published in our Voices of Tomorrow section and titled “Let science be science again,” was one of the reasons Cheng was named the winner of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ 2017 Leonard M. Rieser Award.
She has since gone on to be a contributor to a variety of publications, including Foreign Policy magazine, above and beyond her work as a research associate at Cornell University’s Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based ScienceS and Education (CLASSE) and a member of the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.
And now, those same words mark the opening of a feature article in the South China Morning Post, “How Stephen Hawking’s Chinese disciple is smashing universal barriers in his spirit.” In it, Cheng credits the late Stephen Hawking, who died earlier this week, with helping to heal the wounds she suffered when she lost her father at a young age: She found a translation of Hawking’s bestselling work, A Brief History of Time, on her father’s bookshelf and endeavored to read it. “It just so happened that Hawking’s book was about time,” she said. “It helped me break through the confines of space and time and life and death itself to fill in some of the memories.”
The Post story notes, however, that “China’s government is not likely to trumpet Cheng’s accomplishments. The 28-year-old physicist has been vocal about the need for more academic freedom in China, and in recent months has become increasingly outspoken about the government’s attempts to censor scholarly debate.”