Astrophysicist Bing Zhang Elected APS Fellow

Astrophysicist Bing Zhang
Jan. 14, 2015

UNLV astrophysicist Bing Zhang was recently elected Fellow to the American Physics Society. He was honored for his significant scientific contributions to the understanding of the physical mechanisms of high-energy astrophysical sources, especially the prompt emission and afterglows of cosmological gamma-ray bursts. The high honor is restricted to 0.5% of the membership in a given year.

Read how Zhang came to love astronomy as well as his research interests.

Rebel since:
July 2004

In 2003-04, I interviewed with several universities, and UNLV gave me an attractive offer. The College of Sciences and the Department of Physics & Astronomy (then Department of Physics) offered me what I requested, and all the faculty members, especially the faculty members in the astronomy group, were (and still are) very friendly and supportive. I never regretted joining UNLV.

Why astronomy?
I was first exposed to astronomy in 5th grade (within the under-developed educational system in China decades ago). The last chapter of a simple “Natural Sciences” book was entitled “The Infinite Universe.” I was immediately fascinated by the thoughts of infinity: there is always somewhere beyond whatever distance you imagine, and there is always a future beyond however long you envision.

In my second year of high school, I was first exposed to relativity when reading a biography of Albert Einstein. I was amazed by the profound concept of space and time. That was when I made up my mind to become an astrophysicist to understand the mysteries of the Universe. I was later admitted to the geophysics major at Peking University as an undergraduate student, but my heart was in astrophysics. I finally entered the astrophysics program at Peking University as a graduate student, and received my Ph.D. degree in astrophysics in 1997. I arrived in the United States in 1998 as a National Research Council research associate at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I moved to Pennsylvania State University in 2000 as a postdoctoral research associate before joining UNLV in 2004.

What is your area of research and why is it important?
My research area is high-energy astrophysics. My research focuses on understanding the underlying physics of the high-energy universe, including systems containing black holes of different scales and neutron stars of different species, relativistic jets launched from these systems, as well as their interaction with the ambient medium. Most of my research papers are dedicated to understanding gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), the most luminous explosions in the universe, but my publications also cover a wide range of topics in astrophysics, including gamma-ray and radio pulsars, magnetars, fast radio bursts, active galactic nuclei, tidal disruption events, white dwarfs, neutrino and cosmic ray physics, and electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational wave sources.

High-energy astrophysics is one of the three most active areas in contemporary astrophysics (along with cosmology and planetary sciences). It is important because it studies objects that have extreme conditions, such as extreme gravity around black holes, extreme speed in GRB jets, extreme magnetic fields at the surface of neutron stars or GRB central engine, and extreme energy and power in some of the most violent explosions in the universe. These objects are where extreme physics can be applied and tested, and where the cutting-edge discoveries and theories are developed to broaden the realm of human knowledge. The importance of the field is reflected by the large budget invested by NASA and other international space agencies in recent years to build space-borne X-ray and gamma-ray satellites.

The field also is enjoying rapid developments in two directions. One is that more and more facilities across the entire electromagnetic spectrum have been built to study the transient universe (in contrast to the quiescent universe astronomers have been observing for centuries). The second is that astronomy is now entering an exciting “multi-messenger” era. Besides the traditional way of observing the universe using electromagnetic signals, instruments to observe the universe in the channels of neutrinos and gravitational waves have been built and have reached the sensitivity of detecting real signals from cosmological sources. The most likely targets for these special “telescopes” are the most violent explosions in the universe, the subjects studied in high-energy astrophysics.

Biggest misconception about your field:
The most commonly encountered question to astrophysicists is “how useful is your research,” or “how does your research benefit our daily life.” Our answers are usually disappointing: not much. The entire motivation of our investigations is simply to fulfill the curiosities everyone had in their childhoods: What is going on out there in the universe, and why? It is not outrageous to say that the developments of science and technology of human civilization over the years were fundamentally driven by these simple curiosities. When Newton thought about the connection between a falling apple and the orbiting Moon, he did not envision that many years later humans would send missions to explore planets and even comets in the solar system using his theory of gravity. When Einstein derived his famous E=mc2 based purely on the beauty of his theory (of relativity), he didn’t foresee that many years later nuclear energy would be used to make bombs and clean energy sources. Similarly what we astrophysicists are working on today, even though may not be directly usable tomorrow, may find profound applications far (or not too far) in the future.

Professional accomplishments:
I am proud that my published papers are widely cited in the community. In professional language my current “h-index” is 67 according to the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, which means that I have 67 papers cited at least 67 times. My 250+ refereed papers have a total citation count of more than 14,000 times, and my 45 first author papers have a total citation count close to 4,000 times (including 15 papers each cited more than 100 times). Having a high citation count means that peer colleagues appreciate our ideas and scientific results, and that they find our results useful in their research. Several theoretical papers I have published were later proven by further observations, and have become leading theories to interpret the observations. As a scientist, nothing makes you happier than stating something close to the truth.

Outside of work:
Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with my family. I like music and sports. I used to play guitar and sing popular songs when I was younger, and even wrote a song or two myself, but now I mostly enjoy listening to my daughter and son playing the piano at home everyday. I also play basketball, tennis, and table tennis.