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Profile | Professor Huang Yonggang’s pragmatic philosophy
Jan 04, 2023
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Professor Huang Yonggang

Editor’s note: In 1978, China introduced the policy of reform and opening-up, during which the Chinese society started opening its arms to embrace the world. The era of time was also referred to as the “spring of science.” This period witnessed a host of scientific organizations integrating into the international community; for example, in 1980, the Chinese Society of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (CSTAM) joined the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (IUTAM) as a member, building new horizon for mechanics research in China.

It was also during this time that a youth embarked on his scientific journey from Yanyuan campus, ultimately set feet on the new scope of mechanics, and steered the giant vessel of science as an outstanding representative of Chinese scientists. He is the solid dynamist named Huang Yonggang, an academician of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, and a foreign academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Absorbing nutrients from the fertile soil of PKU Mechanics

The first of its kind in China, Peking University Department of Mathematics and Mechanics (precursor of the Department of Mechanics and Engineering Science), was founded in 1952 by a small group of patriotic scholars led by Zhou Peiyuan, former president of Peking University. Prof. Huang could still recall that the depth and practicality of the curriculum provided by the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics were comparable to the postgraduate programs offered by Ivy League schools in the US at that period. He recounted, during an interview with PKU Gazette, that “At Peking University, I engaged in a two-year training of calculus, full of benefits for my future career of research. Only after I mastered the solid but basic mathematical problems could I solve the most important scientific problems while facing the new fields.”

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Group Photo for Building No. 43 Room 320 in 1981 (first row from the left: Prof. Huang Yonggang, Wang Hongyu, Wang Xiuxin; second row from the left: Prof. Guo Xiangdong, Wu Pei, Lv Ganyu, Lu Chun)

The teaching of mechanics at Peking University was both rigid and flexible back then. The rigidity lay in the preciseness of courses enrolled in the previous two years for undergraduate students. Prof. Huang thought of himself as an indoorsman because his schedule was always arranged for academic reading in the library or the classrooms, or even in his dormitory. As recalled by Prof. Guo Xiangdong of Columbia University, “To some extent, Huang completely inherits his father’s working pattern--a life-long insistence of 17 or 18 working hours a day.” The flexibility, on the other hand, referred to the free atmosphere created by Peking University for youngsters to explore their boundaries. Although supervised by Hu Haichang in mechanics, Huang was endowed the opportunity to follow several professors (who taught lessons for him), to conduct research programs under their guidance; during that time Huang even published his maiden work in journals.

Besides academic study, it was the beautiful and inclusive campus of Peking University that nurtured the 1980 generation of students who majored in mechanics. While attending a four-week labor education in the No. 2 Canteen, Prof. Huang was requested to work as a handyman under the leadership of the canteen’s chef, along with his six roommates. Smart and capable, Huang were able to complete the work in such a swift manner that the chef even doubted its quality. Prof. Huang still remembered the appearance of unhappiness on the chef’s face, “The moment he realized that we had finished (the work), he brought out a basket of some five-hundred boiled eggs and asked us to peel them all. We just took off the eggs’ shells together, and the staff would later find that there were only 450 left (they wolfed down several eggs).” “After that, he never let us peel eggs again.”

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Photo shows Prof. Huang Yonggang elected as foreign academician in CAS

Breaking waves in the vast sea of science

When talking about the influence of familial predecessors on himself in scientific research, Prof. Huang pointed out that the profound parental support he received is exemplary of how to behave in both life affairs and academic research.

“I’m more used to thinking about what I can do in only two or three years,” said Prof. Huang, whose pragmatic attitude is simple but effective, guiding him throughout his career. To compete for scarce positions as faculty after obtaining his Ph.D. degree, Prof. Huang forced himself to compile a high quantity of articles published in projects even when they only brought slightly incremental insights on specific problems. After Prof. Huang had built a modest academic reputation, he made up his mind to focus on ground-breaking questions by conducting one-to-one discussions with doctoral students and step-by-step progress.

In Prof. Huang’s opinion, pragmatism does not equal to being “laid-back,” he said, “The process of selecting and nurturing an excellent professor is just like a mechanical test of fracture under the shadow of great anxiety.” From micro-plastic mechanics to flexible electronics created by Prof. Huang, he has always tried his best to transform the basic knowledge learned from Peking University into ingenious solutions of major engineering problems in a pragmatic manner.

Prof. Huang constantly dug deep into the charm of mechanics in his continuous efforts of scientific research. In his word, the method of mechanics is an elegant balance of the importance of scientific problems and the interests of researchers, which determines the most spontaneous interaction between mechanics and the other disciplines. In addition, dynamists must rely on other channels of discipline to obtain fruitful financial support, and the pressure of survival drives them to always push themselves, and always take interdisciplinary research as the research paradigm.

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Prof. Huang Yonggang

Passing down the baton to the youth

Throughout his career, Prof. Huang has attached great importance to the cultivation of young talents, who, as he believes, have been rooted in the field of solid mechanics and flexible electronics, and gradually grow into outstanding young scientists. Some of them have devoted themselves into the relevant fields in Chinese mainland, inheriting their teachers’ spirits and skills and making contributions in their own way.

Talking about his experience, Prof. Huang held the opinion that the mode of interaction between the tutors and doctoral students largely determines the future of a young researcher, which cannot be undervalued. He enjoys the feeling of working with students – a process that he described as like “climbing endless mountains with generations of fresh faces.” When it comes to the group of young students who are in anxiety, Prof. Huang highlighted the universality of competition and the necessity of struggle (all based on his own experience); and he said, “The timely regression of the society deviated from the opportunity period is a common sense that people in their long life may encounter many times, and such discomfort is exactly the driving force for both personal and social development.”

With more and more young overseas scholars returning to domestic institutes, new scholars employed by Peking University, in Prof. Huang’s words, can benefit greatly from the best source of students at PKU, which is the most fertile soils to nurture young scientists.

The past 2022 was of great significance to PKU’s mechanics, as it was not only the 120th anniversary of the birth of Zhou Peiyuan but also the 70th anniversary of the founding of PKU’s mechanics. Prof. Huang also proposed a potential answer to building PKU into a world-class college of engineering, full of wisdom. He suggested that we might draw from the ideas of other world-class universities, which are in the same scale with PKU’s College of Engineering, including building important branches of research and attracting leading talents.

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Prof. Huang Yonggang (first from the right), his collaborators John Rogers and postdoctoral Zhang Yihui (currently, professor in Tsinghua University)


When asked whether he would go to the concert in spare time, Prof. Huang laughed and quipped, “I will if my wife orders our tickets.”  

Salute to Prof. Huang Yonggang, the outstanding class of 1980 alumnus of the PKU’s Department of Mechanics! Let's pay tribute to all scientists who have been contributing to the prosperity of human welfare!

Written by: Fu Jiaqi
Edited by: Meng Bin
Source: College of Engineering, Peking University Gazette