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Britton Chance

Da Hsuan Feng


In two days, President Michael Lai and I will be completing our terms as President and Senior Executive Vice President respectively. I am sure I speak for Michael that as this would be our last comments before the new administration steps in on next Tuesday, we would have much preferred to say something that could be of a cheerful nature and not so melancholy.

To my dismay, this was not to be the case today. Today, we are here in memory of Britton Chance, a great NCKU friend, a great HUST friend, a great human being, and of course, a great scientist who through sheer intellectual strengths, made enormously broad, deep and profound impact on the well being of humanity.

When Shoko asked me to say something here today, I truly felt that it is a solemn and heartbreaking task. As a personal friend of Brit, this is indeed a profoundly emotional one. The reason is in this workshop, what I have to say is not about how absolutely marvelous my good friend and mentor Brit was, but to bid him permanent farewell.

As Brit’s Philadelphia friends said in a poetic manner, “Brit is now doing something he loved even more than science but not more than Shoko, no matter how often they fought like cats and dogs: Eternally Brit went sailing.

There is a joke about a physicist who went to heaven after his death and had an absolute intellectual ball because he finally could ask Albert Einstein how the theory of relativity was created, ask Erwin Schroedinger how Schroedinger equation was constructed for quantum mechanics, ask Richard Feynman how he drew the first Feynman Diagram and created quantum electrodynamics, and ask John Bardeen how he created semiconductors and figured out how superconductivity works. Unfortunately this joke does not apply to Brit. After all, Brit did all this when he was alive! He worked and often taught the best of the best throughout the 20th century.

After all, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder, and sometimes well above, with the greatest intellects of the 20th century. In my introduction about Brit on February 19, 2008 when he received his honorary degree from our university, I said the following: Someone once told me that Brit was a Superman. That is probably an understatement. Brit is much much more.

In 1976, when I became a young assistant professor at Drexel University, a colleague told me that there was ONE person in Philadelphia I must get to know. He told me that the man was a genius, and had done superman work in science and technology and his name was Britton Chance. I remember saying to myself in my youthful foolishness, why would I want to get to know someone who was not a nuclear physicist! In hindsight, what I did not realize is in fact, while Brit may not be classified as a nuclear physicist, he probably contributed more fundamental work in the field than those who claimed to be one, like me.

So for quarter of a century, from 1976 to 2001, I was physically so close to Brit in Philadelphia, yet so far. I never met him. Then the sky lid up in 2001, after I left Philadelphia and was invited back to Philadelphia to attend a meeting as an advisor of Peking University’s alumni association. I was placed NEXT TO, yes my friends, NEXT TO, Britton Chance and Shoko, at the banquet. Indeed, if one could choose between brilliant or lucky when one was born, CHOOSE LUCKY. What luck indeed!

From that moment onwards, my life ABSOLUTELY changed. From a few minutes of discussions with Brit, I realized how profoundly stupid for quarter-of-a-century of me for not getting to know him, for not creating the opportunity for myself to learn from him, even just by osmosis. I decided from that moment on, I would stick to Brit like a leech! And I did!

Friends, in the last ten years, what I learned from Brit was not biochemistry or biophysics or biomedical photonics, but how to be a better human being. I learned how to leverage all my might to assist humanity in my own minute and often inconsequential manner!

So, what is the difference between Superman the comic character and Superman Brit? Well, the comic Superman wears his underwear on the outside and Superman Brit spent his entire 97 years enhancing the quality of life for all humanity! Ladies and gentlemen, that is why Brit was the REAL Superman!

So again, Brit, as you are sailing through the galaxy, please continue to leverage your powerful intellect to inspire mere mortals on earth. Give us the strength and courage to learn from you, and to help our fellow human beings.

Good bye Brit. I miss you my friend.

– Da Hsuan Feng