Professor Xun-li Wang elected to theAmerican Physical Society

11 May 2024

Croucher News caught up with Professor Xun-Li Wang at City University of Hong Kong  to talk about his election to the Board of Directors of the American Physical Society and his role as an International Councillor.

We began by asking Wang about the American Physical Society. “It’s taken on the role of being an international society for physicists, with members everywhere saying they join primarily to be part of a larger physics community. In fact, more than 20% of the members live outside of the United States in over 100 countries, and more than 70% of articles published in APS journals have an international co-author. APS was founded in 1899 when 36 physicists gathered at Columbia University and proclaimed the mission of the new society to be ‘to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics.’ So this year we’re celebrating the 125th anniversary of APS,” he told us.

Wang is a past president of the Physical Society of Hong Kong, and one of the first things he did in his new role with APS was to organise a satellite meeting in the city for the APS’s March gathering, its largest annual event. The March meeting is a scientific research conference convening 13,000 physicists and students from around the world. “We were the first one in Asia to host such a satellite meeting with the APS. The idea was to have a local gathering of physicists in Hong Kong and invite physicists from mainland China to travel to Hong Kong to take part,” commented Wang. The satellite meeting was organised in collaboration with the Physical Society of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is also part of the Asia Pacific Physical Society, or AAPPS. And one of the main prizes for AAPPS, run in conjunction with the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics, is the CN Yang Award. Professor Chen Ning Yang is one of the most celebrated physicists in Mainland China. He won the Nobel Prize in 1957 for his work in theoretical physics. Since 2022, two outstanding physicists from Hong Kong have won the CN Yang Award. “I’m keen to build on this kind of recognition of the contribution to physics being made in Hong Kong, and this satellite meeting in March was part of that.”

Physics is multi-disciplinary in its very nature, and at the same time, international collaboration is also crucial to tackling the big problems

“Physics is multi-disciplinary in its very nature, and at the same time, international collaboration is also crucial to tackling the big problems. So I’m keen to foster more cooperation between institutions, regions, and countries.”

Wang’s roles with the APS inevitably takes up a significant amount of time and involves some extra travel. “But I think it’s important I do this to give something back to the community by fostering greater international collaboration,” he said. “And I’m lucky to have the support of my colleagues, which makes it all much more practicable,” he added.

He originally became a physicist because, as he said, “I basically wanted to figure out how things work. I remember reading a book as a child about the nature of the universe. That helped inspire me.”

Wang’s field is neutron scattering. This involves “shining neutron beams onto a material and collecting the pattern scattered off the beam. From this pattern, we can figure out how the atoms are packed at the most fundamental level inside these materials. Neutrons have no charge, so they can penetrate deeply into the materials.” Neutron scattering is carried out at large facilities worldwide, such as the China Spallation Neuron Source (CSNS) in Dongguan, close to Hong Kong. These facilities are large investments, but they give us insights into the fundamental properties of materials. They can lead to advances in areas such as developing advanced materials for use in electronics, aerospace, automotive, and other high-tech industries, drug discovery, and energy storage,” Wang told us.

Wang knows first-hand the benefits of collaboration. His own joint lab, run with Professor Hesheng Chen of the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has received support from Croucher, as well as from CAS and Hong Kong’s Research Grants Council (RGC), and has involved working with colleagues on the mainland as well as internationally. The Multi Physics Instrument, which was jointly built with CSNS and Dongguan University of Technology, has been a very successful example. In less than three years since commissioning, the instrument has produced over 60 papers, with two of them published in Nature and five in Nature Communications, an exceptional research output.

A recipient of a Croucher Senior Research Fellowship in 2020, Wang also believes strongly in the value of giving younger scientists the opportunity to network, learn from their peers, and learn from international experts in their field. That’s why he set up a Croucher Summer School on neutron scattering in 2014 (it then ran in 2016, 2018, and 2023 and will run again in 2025). The course featured top experts in the world, and Wang was also impressed by how the residential format encouraged participants to work together. “They just formed a remarkable cohort of students, and they loved to interact with each other. I’m very grateful to Croucher Foundation for giving us the chance to support the careers of these young physicists in this way.”

1 Professor Xun-Li Wang, serving from this year as both an International Councillor and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Physical Society.