Sunday, December 16, 2007

Liu Zihua: A New Kind of Astronomy

In the 1930s, a young Chinese by the name of Liu Zihua (刘子华) was living a lonely and miserable life in Paris, France. But he had a dream to pursuit. The 9th planet of the solar system, the Pluto, was just discovered not too long ago. There were much talk about the possibility of a 10th planet.

However, Liu Zihua was not an astronomer. But he found a unique approach. He set out to match the ancient Chinese philosophy, namely, the Yin and Yang (阴阳) and it's Eight Diagrams (八卦) algorithm with the orbit parameters of the known planets.

He had been doing that since he arrived at Paris in 1919. After much difficulty, he had found an initial match among the known planets before Pluto. However, the Pluto discovery forced him back to the drawing board, since the new planet did not fit into his original match. After a few years of hard work, he found a new match, with an exciting caveat. According to Yin and Yang, planets should come in as pairs. He paired the Sun with Mars, Moon with Venus, Jupiter with Saturn, etc. (Never mind the fact that the Sun and Moon are not planets.) As such, he found the Uranus left out all alone, without a partner.

To complete his match, there had to be another planet, which of course would be the 10th planet everyone was looking for! To fit his match, the new planet must have an average orbital speed of 1.65 km/s, density of 0.424 kg/m^3, and average distance to the Sun 7.4 billion km -- apparently the three parameters he had used in his match. What he couldn't do with his theory was, of course, to predict the planet's actual location or orbit.

In the Fall of 1939, Liu Zihua submitted his thesis to the University of Paris and obtained a Ph. D. degree. (His certificate seemed to indicate that it was a degree in liberal arts, rather than science.) He also published it as a book in French in 1940, and according to today's reports, caused a great excitement in the astronomy field in western Europe (the escalation of World War II not withstanding.)

Liu Zihua returned to China soon after. He must have tried hard to sell his new astronomy in the wartime China. At least one prominent astronomer, Zhang Yuzhe (张钰哲), published an essay "Do You Know How Planets Are Discovered?" to rebuke Liu's claims.

In the ensuring decades, Liu Zihua and his theory were all forgotten, buries in the waves of tremendous social and political changes in China.

But Liu never gave up. In 1978, he came out and announced that his new calculations according to I Ching indicated that the new Planet would appear around the year 1982. Lo and behold, the "Planet X" was "discovered" in 1981. Liu enjoyed a mini-revival at the time. But that soon faded away. Liu Zihua died in 1992, survived by his wife and a son Liu Shaohua (刘少华).

It was not until early this century, with the discovery of 2003 UB313, aka Xena or Eris, Liu Zihua and his theory became first-page news in China again. Finally, the 10th planet is here! Never mind the huge difference in actual parameter values from what Liu had predicted, "his prediction was shockingly similar to this new discovery!"

On August 10, 2005, Fang Zhouzi published an essay describing the flaws of Liu Zihua's theory and its absolute irrelevance to the new discovery. Using the Chinese phrase 欺世盗名, he accused Liu Zihua as someone who had tried to gain fame through deceiving the world.

The newspaper Beijing Science and Technology (BST) , one of the media outlets that carried Fang's essay, also named it as one of the "Top 10 Cheats and Deceptions in Science and Technology" in 2005.

In July 2006, Liu Zihua's surviving wife and son sued Fang Zhouzi and four media outlets, BST, Sina, Sohu, and NetEase, for defamation. They sought for 2,500,000 RMB ($312,500) in damage, an astronomical amount in Chinese court for such cases.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Liu maybe a dreamer and limited by his time, a Chinese court taking up a case like this shows how ignorant and ill-informed the "upcoming superpower" still is today. But on the bright side, Sara Palyn was that close to the white house just 2 years ago! The gap is narrowing and the world indeed is coming together fast :)