UTD prof advises students: Get outta here!

Americans need to learn about the world firsthand, he says

03:59 PM CST on Sunday, January 8, 2006
By Cheryl Hall:

Da Hsuan Feng would have us believe that the world is flat and shrinking.

That might seem peculiar coming from a noted physics professor. Then again, he specializes in theoretical physics, studying such things as supernova explosions to figure out how the galaxy evolved. The 60-year-old vice president for research and economic development at the University of Texas at Dallas is a Renaissance guy in scientific disguise. He believes Americans must realize that advances in technology, communications and travel have "flattened" the Earth's surface and made the United States more vulnerable to global competition. "The world is a lot smaller than we want to believe," says Dr. Feng. "What is the best way to protect this nation? We must become as knowledgeable about the rest of the world as it is of us." That means that more of our young and brightest should go abroad for part of their education, he contends. Such talk might be considered heresy coming from someone whose primary duty is to drum up support for UTD.  But Da Hsuan (pronounced dah-schwan) Feng, who has lived on three continents, has an unusually expansive perspective.

He was born in New Delhi, India, to Chinese parents who were educated in the United States. His father earned his law degree from New York University, while his concert pianist mother was one of the first Chinese women to study at the Juilliard School. He grew up in Singapore before coming to the United States in 1964. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Minnesota. His curriculum vitae includes 193 (many esoteric) articles, including one that estimates the age of the galaxy at 4.6 billion years – give or take. He also spends a great deal of mental energy these days on quantum chaos. Trust him: "It's the deepest question people are now struggling with." After giving me an extensive explanation of the difference between classical vs. quantum chaos, he asks: "Does that make sense?"

Not a bit, I respond. "None of the stuff that I've done as a theoretical physicist would IPO any day soon," he says with a chuckle. "On the other hand, in 1998, I became vice president of Scientific Applications International Corp., one of the largest defense contract companies nobody's ever heard of. "I went from a completely cocooned professorship to a total corporate mentality. Now I'm a senior administrator for a research university in the Southwest." Our moat Given that background, be prepared. Dr. Feng is about to use some pretty out-there analogies to coax us into heightened global awareness.

The United States used to be protected by an Atlantic-Pacific oceanic "moat," which made us a secure destination for freedom and opportunity, he says. "During World War II, Europe suffered physically and mentally from the Holocaust by the Germans, and Asia, the Nanjing massacre at the hands of the Japanese," says Dr. Feng. "The U.S. came through the war 'clean,' so to speak. "The U.S. was perceived as the solid castle of stability, so much so that the smartest and hardest-working people all over the globe converged here and helped build this country." But this also led to isolationist thinking that now threatens our intellectual and economic world leadership, he contends. "We need a new moat, not a body of water, but a new generation who understands the complex world and can communicate, interact, collaborate and compete with anyone on Earth.

"Only if we can create this new moat, and do so quickly, will we as a nation repulse the aggressive and diverse intellectual, economic and military challenges that we're already seeing early on in the 21st century." Forget Parises,When Dr. Feng came here 42 years ago as an 18-year-old, he thought he'd never see Singapore again. He was wrong. "I've visited Asia more than 100 times and Europe more than 30 times." He notes that a trip to D/FW International Airport from Europe or Asia takes only 10 or 12 hours. "This is a remarkable and profound transformation compared to the 21-day boat trip endured by nearly all Asian students in the '60s when coming to the United States." Hence the world-is-shrinking analogy. But the fact is, there's a thin layer of Americans who travel or are educated outside the United States, he says. And the number of U.S. students who get some education beyond our borders is minuscule. Too many of our youth think an international crisis is the breakup of Paris Hilton and Paris Latsis. That puts us at a disadvantage. "Take a look at the economy of Taiwan, which is archetypical for using talent to go abroad to learn things and then having it come back to put that knowledge to work," he says. Before the '70s, almost all college graduates in Taiwan came to the United States to get their advanced degrees. Many stayed and became "scientific pillars" here.

But after the '70s, more started to drift back to Taiwan's expanding economy. "Not only did they bring back our science and technology, but they also brought back entrepreneurial, commercial and cultural knowledge about the United States and melded that into the Taiwan economy to make it what it is today." Now we must do the same thing. Go aboard for a spell, learn and come back. (He'd be particularly pleased if folks came back to UTD for advanced degrees.) "We need people who understand world affairs, who can go to the core of the problems," he says. "This is going to be very difficult and will take a long time. But if we don't do this, the 21st century is going to be a tough one for us."

E-mail cherylhall@dallasnews.com