Memories of Shang-keng Ma

Our text is dedicated to the memory of Shang-keng Ma.

The following is a slightly edited version of a talk given in memory of Shang-keng Ma by Fred Y. Wu at the 50th statistical mechanics meeting at Rutgers University, December 15, 1983.

I speak with great sorrow and deep grief of the loss of our friend, colleague, and coworker, Shang-keng Ma. Shang-keng was born in 1940 in Chungking, the World War II capital of China. He came to this country at the age of eighteen and entered U. C. Berkeley to study physics. He obtained his B. S. degree there in 1962 with the honor of the "most promising senior," and continued on to earn a Ph.D. in 1966 at Berkeley under the direction of Professor Kenneth Watson. His Ph.D. work was in many-body theory, and it was natural that he did his postdoctoral work with Professor Keith Brueckner at U. C. San Diego, where he eventually became a full professor in 1975.

His early work reflected much of his Ph.D. training. His first publication was with Chia-Wei Woo, who also was a postdoctoral research associate working with Brueckner at the same time. They collaborated on two papers on the charged Bose gas, obtaining the same results using two entirely different approaches, one using Green's functions and the other using correlated basis wave functions. Ma subsequently worked on various problems in different fields, including the electron gas, fermion liquids, and quantum electrodynamics, all with the flavor of Green's functions. During those early years, Chia-Wei once related to me that Shang-keng had confided to him that he could not do anything without Green's functions. But this was soon to change.

During the period of 1969-72, Shang-keng continued to work in both condensed matter as well as high energy physics, often bridging the two, producing papers with titles such as "Singularities in Forward Multi-Particle Scattering Amplitudes" and the "S-Matrix Interpretation of Higher Virial Coefficients." In 1972 his interest shifted to the then rapidly emerging area of renormalization group theory. To learn the development first-hand from the originators, he took a leave from La Jolla and spent a few months at Cornell with Ken Wilson and Michael Fisher. Soon thereafter he produced a number of important and influential papers on the subject, among them, the 1/N and 1/n expansions, and the first review article on renormalization group. Since then, he worked in diverse areas of critical phenomena and statistical physics, including critical dynamics of ferromagnet and spin glasses, magnetic chains, and the study of the Boltzmann equation.

In 1976 Shang-keng introduced the idea of Monte Carlo renormalization group, an approach that has now become fashionable. His most recent contribution with Joseph Imry was on random systems, on the change of the critical dimensionality of spin systems due to the presence of random fields. He also had formulated a new way of considering entropy in dynamical systems. These works are full of physical intuition and new ideas, and are very different from his earlier Green's function calculations. It is clear that Shang-keng was just at the beginning of making an impact in many areas of statistical physics. He visited many institutions to pursue his ideas, including Cornell, the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, Berkeley, Saclay, Harvard, National Tsing Hua University of Taiwan, and the IBM Watson Research Center.

Shang-keng's work is characterized by a unique style of elegance and profound thinking. He was, as Leo Kandanoff remarked to me, a deep thinker, not just a calculator. He wrote two books. His first book Modern Theory of Critical Phenomena, was published by Benjamin and has been translated into Russian. His most recent book Statistical Mechanics was written in Chinese. In this book which was published earlier this year, statistical mechanics is presented in an unconventional way reflecting his unique style and way of thinking. The book was intended to students of all fields and is very readable. Fortunately for readers in the West, it is now available in an English edition.

Shang-keng was a dedicated teacher and researcher, and a devoted father and husband. He was also talented in many areas outside physics. His greatest past-time was reading Chinese classics. He was a regular contributor of articles to newspapers and magazines in Taiwan. One of his unfinished works on his desk was a novel on cancer patients written in Chinese. He was a student of oil painting for many years, and he enjoyed and sang Chinese operas and played the ancient Chinese musical instrument "tseng" very well.

Although he was not a smoker, Shang-keng was found to have lung cancer in May 1982 shortly after returning home from a sabbatical leave in Taiwan. While he worked hard in Taiwan including finishing his second book, the hard work took an apparent toll since by then it was too late for treatment. Doctors soon gave up on him and he gave up on the doctors in return. In order to lead a normal family life, especially with his children, Shang-keng chose to stay at home and work as usual, despite all the pain he had to suffer. It was a courageous fight from the very beginning. He mentioned on the phone the pain that kept him awake at night, but he did not give up. He continued to teach and do research until two weeks before Thanksgiving, when the doctor brought the worst news after a blood test. But he was confined to bed only in his last four days. The abstract of his last paper "Entropy of Polymer Chains Moving in a Two Dimensional Square Lattice" was finished one week before his death. By that time, he was unable to read and had to rely on Claudia, his wife, to read the text for corrections. He passed away in his home, in the early hours of Thanksgiving Day, leaving Claudia and two sons, Tian-Shan and Tian-Mo, ages three and fifteen months.

Last night I spoke to Claudia and asked her if there was anything that Shang-keng would have wanted to tell us, his friends, colleagues, and coworkers, on this occasion. After a pause, she said that Shang-keng had told her that he would like to be remembered as an ordinary person. Yes, just an ordinary person.

There is an old Chinese saying which says "the truly greatness is being ordinary." With this quote I would like to close, and hope we all remember our friend and colleague, Shang-keng Ma, as the ordinary person who worked so hard and contributed so much.


28 August 2007.