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Friday, July 12, 2019, 11:33
Infinite potential
By Li Yingxue
Friday, July 12, 2019, 11:33 By Li Yingxue

Xue Qikun (third right) leads a team of scientists to research the quantum-anomalous Hall effect. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

A film aimed at recruiting fresh talent to Tsinghua University went viral online in June. It resonated with many students who had recently taken the gaokao, the national college entrance exam.

"Being a scientist means you have the duty to solve the unsolved and challenge the limits of what we know as human beings."

Xue Qikun, vice-president of Tsinghua University

In From One to Infinity, the vice-president of the university, Xue Qikun, says: "You may find it hard to integrate into campus life or have doubts about your future, but you should feel proud that every one of us gathered here represents our communal hope for the future."

The 56-year-old professor of physics and academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences was also the recipient of a 1 million yuan (US$145,000) prize from the Future Science Awards for his pioneering research into the quantum-anomalous Hall effect in 2016.

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As a scientist, Xue takes the Latin word excelsior (higher) as his motto. And as an educator, he asks his students to adopt this spirit and aim to achieve even higher standards, in the hope that they will become the leading physicists of the future.

Xue grew up in a village in Linyi, Shandong province. He recalls that when he was in elementary school, the desks were made from rough wooden planks and he had to bring his own chair from home to sit on.

After he graduated from Shandong University, he twice failed the Chinese Academy of Sciences' entrance exam. In 1987, he was finally enrolled to study condensed-matter physics.

Xue received an offer to finish his doctoral studies at the Institute for Materials Research in Tohoku University in Japan in 1992. He was recruited to a laboratory with the nickname "7-11"-he had to arrive there at 7 am and leave after 11 pm, six days a week.

There were three things Xue did each day-eat, sleep and research. Sometimes, he was so tired that he had to take a nap in the washroom before returning to the lab.

"There were seven or eight months of the year where I felt like quitting and returning to China as I felt so lonely living in Japan due the language barrier," says Xue.

On one occasion, Xue was asked to collect and classify thousands of screws in the laboratory, which took him three days. The task was a monotonous one, but it made him realize the importance of seeking perfection. And when he finally made a breakthrough in his research, the process confirmed his determination to solve the most difficult puzzles in physics.

In 1996, Xue was invited to give a speech at the American Physical Society. Back then, his spoken English was rudimentary. To present his speech more fluently, Xue practiced saying each word individually and ended up reciting the entire presentation more than 80 times to keep it within 20 seconds of the allotted time.

Xue has kept to his rigorous 7-11 schedule ever since his time in Japan, and he has grown from a 7-11 doctoral candidate into a 7-11 academician.

In 2005, Xue was invited to work for the department of physics at Tsinghua University, and later that year he was selected to be an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences-as one of the youngest members at the age of 41.

Xue and his team started to research the quantum-anomalous Hall effect in October of 2008.

Four years later, on the night of Oct 12, 2012, Xue came home earlier than usual. At around 10:30 pm, after parking his car, he received a message from Chang Cuizu, a member of his experimental team, saying that the first sign of the quantum-anomalous Hall effect had been detected. The message was so important that Xue still keeps it on his phone.

Xue Qikun, vice-president of Tsinghua University. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

Ma Xucun, a professor of physics at Tsinghua University, remembers Xue brought two bottles of champagne to the laboratory to celebrate with his team the next day.

"Our team has its own sense of unity, but we always collaborate with other teams, too," says Ma.

Ma knows that Xue cares about every aspect of his students' lives. He's a hard taskmaster when it comes to presenting every detail, even down to the format of an email.

Their discoveries were published in the journal Science in March 2013 and shocked the world. The quantum-anomalous Hall effect is a phenomenon that has puzzled the physics community for over 130 years, as its potential for creating electronics with reduced energy costs and heat emissions would allow engineers to create even more powerful supercomputers.

Chen-Ning Yang, a winner of the Nobel Prize for physics, said at a conference that Xue's research was groundbreaking in the field and worthy of a Nobel.

Xue says that while it may seem that his team spent only four years tackling the difficulties in identifying the quantum-anomalous Hall effect, they actually spent up to 30 years preparing for it.

"There are many other teams in the world that are researching this topic, such as teams from the University of Tokyo, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. But it was first observed in a Chinese lab," says Xue.

Xue says that collaboration between his team members was one of the most important factors behind the breakthrough, and he regards this as one of the basic requirements for his students.

He once answered an email from a student asking what attributes he was looking for in potential research candidates. He replied that a strong interest in science and the ability to communicate with others were the key factors other than a solid academic background.

Wang Ruifeng, 25, became a student of Xue's in 2017. He listened to Xue's speech in Hefei, Anhui province, in his junior year and decided to study with him for his doctorate.

"He is amenable and talkative, but he is really tough when it comes down to research. On one occasion, when I just jotted down the references and page citations in one of my reports, the professor pointed out that I should also add the names of the original authors," Wang says.

In January, Xue and his team received the top prize in this year's National Natural Science Awards for the first experimental observations of the quantumanomalous Hall effect in 2012.

In the six years since their discovery, Xue's team has turned up the heat of their efforts by a factor of 10.

Today, this enthusiastic team continues to grow more samples and characterize them, even late into the night when it is very quiet, with the aim of making more valuable progress in the field of condensed-matter physics.

Xue and his team are also working on superconductivity. There is a periodic table of superconductivity on the wall of Xue's office, and he studies it once a day.

"As scientists, we should solidify our basic knowledge each day and always keep thinking. My theories could be proved wrong in the future, but it doesn't matter. Being a scientist means you have the duty to solve the unsolved and challenge the limits of what we know as human beings," says Xue.

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"Scientists are as curious as children. I hope that in the future, scientists can break free of their boring image and instead be regarded as role models for the younger generations and attract more youth to enter into the world of science."

Contact the writer at liyingxue@chinadaily.com.cn

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