Professor Jun Zhang: A Wavin’ Flag Without a Pole

On clearer days, Professor Jay-Z’s cluttered corner office had a great view of what Paris Hilton once described as “the future.” Unbothered by the recently constructed buildings that stand in the way, he finds inspiration in the traffic flowing on Century Avenue, the apposite 10 lane road that spills into the heart of Shanghai’s financial district. “The traffic is like thermal convection,” he says candidly, referring to the physical phenomenon studied both in his well established laboratory in New York, and his nascent one here in Shanghai. A prominent figure in his field of fluid dynamics, Professor Jay-Z’s demeanor switches between humorous and pensive and it’s never certain which state he’s in at any given moment. Like a human electron, you have to hear what he has to say before you can know which direction he was pointing in.

“My name is Jun Zhang, but most people call me Jay-Z for short,” was his deadpan introduction to my freshman year physics class. Most people expect to be confused by an esoteric Chinese physicist with an ESL accent, but in Jay-Z’s class, it’s the man himself that’s mysterious; he explains the ostensibly arcane with unparalleled clarity. “I believe research is for pleasure and teaching is my obligation… my parents were teachers,” he pauses, and with the hint of a smile, concludes, “it’s in my blood.” Growing up in China’s Henan Province during the Cultural Revolution, a time of terrible turmoil, his life has been marked with external instability. After graduating from Wuhan University in 1985, he taught physics at the university during the day and drew for magazines by night as a freelance, “emergency” artist. The extra money was nice, he admits, but he says he did it for the chance to utilize his imagination, working under tight deadlines to provide a given story with a companion sketch.

Setting sail for distant shores in 1989, Jun moved to Israel as a PhD candidate, only to be forced out a year later when the first Gulf War broke out. “We returned one day to find that the school had put gas masks in all of our dorm rooms,” he told me, “you know, just in case.” His next move came first on the back of learning about the fluid dynamics program at the University of Copenhagen, and the second, more serendipitous discovery about getting a PhD. “Did you know it’s possible to transfer as a PhD student? I didn’t know that either, until I did… I was floating, never rooted anywhere,” he said. Attending one of Professor Jay-Z’s lectures, or sitting down to talk to him, one quickly gets a sense of his unorthodox approach to the human routine. Our 8:15am physics class always began with him lamenting how it was far too early in the morning to have a class, and he invariably ended the 75 minute lecture after only an hour.

Jun has been with NYU since 1998, but he’s not married, has no kids, and doesn’t own a house or a car anywhere in the world. His daily commute to NYU Shanghai is 12 minutes, door to door, on a bespattered, two-wheeled white “self-balancing scooter,” or hover-board, which has a top speed of about 18 km/h. The antithesis of a materialist, Professor Jay-Z says he would go to Mars tomorrow if they told him there was at least a 40% chance of returning. Short of Mars, his job took him in 2008 to the frozen tundra of Svalbard, near the North Pole, and in 2014 to live at Palmer Station in Antarctica for six weeks. In traversing the frigid geographic frontiers of human civilization, the topics of his research have ranged from continental drift to the swimming patterns of microscopic Arctic fish, which vary according to changes in the water’s flow.

The Zhang Lab at NYU’s Courant Institute gets a lot of media attention, probably because of the everyday implications of what they study. To understand how a flag flaps in the wind, they built an apparatus that consisted of a tank, water, soap and a string: by varying the flow of water, they determined that flags have two stably dynamic states, straight and flapping. They’ve done a lot of convoluted math to help prove this, yet as a teacher and a researcher, Jun says his “job is to take complicated things and make them simple.” The flag experiment was published in Nature, arguably the most prestigious scientific journal in circulation, a highly coveted feat. “I like to take my time, but once I’m done, I move quickly,” he said. Professor Jay-Z says he left his lab in New York to move to Shanghai because he knew he would plateau if he stayed; he “wanted to force [himself] to think about and build a new life,” which is no small task for a fifty-something physicist, who in New York finally had a place he called home.

Like a string attached to the wall of his water tunnel, Jun has two stable states. He travels often for work, constantly fluttering, or he rides his hover board down Century Avenue, a straight, twelve minute shot to NYU Shanghai. Aware that his physical prime is behind him, he’s trying again to make it in Shanghai like he did in New York. He enjoys badminton, and wants to climb the Five Great Mountains of China, in the span of 7 days, if possible. For Professor Jay-Z, there’s no greater barrier in life than complacency. He likens his motivation to stay on the move to that a starving artist: “you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone to produce quality work,” he says. Staying relevant in 2018 is no simple task, and that is especially true in scientific research. Just as fish have survived by being highly adapted to respond to changes in the flow of their environment, the most enduring advances in science have been made in the face of the perplexing.

Reflecting on the rapid acceleration of humankind, Professor Jay-Z told me “humans are the most forward looking animals,” and asked, “is there any other species that plants seeds in the ground before winter, in order to have food in the spring?” He’s right about the human penchant for preparation, but what really sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our species’ pioneers. When I asked him where his favorite place to travel is, he thought for a while, and eventually responded “the next place.” It might sound like a terrible cliché, but it’s the truth. Greatness isn’t achieved by standing still, it’s won in the face of hardship, far away from a comfort zone. Professor Jay-Z does more than respond to changes in flow, he drops himself in a new environment and forces himself to adapt. His flag stands straight, testing out the wind, until he moves the fan and makes it ripple in a different way. While he probably won’t plant the flag on Mars himself, the person who does will certainly be cut from the same trailblazing cloth.

This article was written by Spencer Smith. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYU Shanghai Education Development Foundation

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