I first met Mr. Jia Shizhen in 2003, when I was still in high school. Mr. Jia is a friend of my grandfather; they came from the same village in Hebei province in northeast China. They got into the same university in 1950 and the major they chose was the most popular one during that post-war era – theoretical physics. When The Korean War broke out, my grandfather joined The People’s Volunteer Army while Mr. Jia stayed at university to finish his bachelor’s degree. After the Korean War, my grandfather chose to remain in the army until he retired when he was 60 years old (in 1992). In that same period of time Mr. Jia pursued his scientific career and in the 1980s got the chance to study abroad. Like most early generation Chinese overseas students, Mr. Jia came to and tried his best to stay in America, and he succeeded.
He returned to China from America for the first time in 2003, and my grandfather invited him to live in our home for a week. Since I was in summer break during the time, I had a lot of time to talk with Mr. Jia. As a 14-year-old student, and because astronomy was so fascinating to me, I was happy to find a physicist to teach me more about astronomy. I still remember that he mentioned the Twins Paradox that was proposed by Albert Einstein in which he said that if we have identical twins, and one of them journeys into space in a high-speed rocket, he returns home to find that his twin who remained on Earth has aged more. Although I couldn’t understand why this could happen, I was excited by the story, and the even more exciting part was that Mr. Jia told me this thought experiment was actually explored by NASA in 1980. (Basically, a thought experiment considers some hypothesis, theory, or principle for the purpose of thinking through its consequences. The result of thought experiments will often be so clear that there will be no need to conduct a physical experiment at all or particular physical experiments are impossible to conduct so scientists can only use thought experiments.) He also said that during the years he spent in America, he has been collecting all kinds of objects and archiving all documents related to this and other thought experiments, a huge archive that documents also includes other famous thought experiment such as Schrodinger’s cat, Maxwell’s demon, the ladder paradox, etc. That was the first time I had a blurry vision of what science was and what scientists were doing. Their world is more playful and interesting than I thought.
After that week, Mr. Jia went back to America and I did not see him again until I came to New York. Although my undergraduate major was Material Science and Engineering (I can say Mr. Jia has a great influence on my decision), I ultimately found that was not my interested, and so instead, I applied for a MFA degree major in photography and came to New York in 2012. Grandfather told me that Mr. Jia was living in New York now and he wanted me to visit him once I arrived here. To be honest, I was reluctant to do so because I was embarrassed to tell him that I change my major from science to art. But eventually I bit the bullet and knocked on the door where Mr’ Jia lives in Brooklyn. To my great relief, he didn’t ask anything about my study. He still remembered me and the week he stayed in our home in 2003. It didn’t take a long time before he began to talk about his collections. Only then did I notice that his whole apartment was full of various stuff (I use the word stuff cause I do not quite know how to describe the variety of things he possesses), letters, books, boxes, test tubes, flasks … it looks more like a facility storage rather than an apartment. All that afternoon I just listened to him, once again, tell stories about thought experiments that raised my interest in the history and philosophy of science. I promised him that I would come back to visit as soon as I had time.
I have become a regular visitor to him since then. Every time he shows me something new (sometimes they are from his old collection, sometimes they are recently purchased) and tells me more about his career of collecting. For him, it is not just a hobby, but a way to construct another history of science that has not been noticed yet. Mr. Jia never married and doesn’t have any relatives in America. I realize that someday, when he passes away, the history of his collections and stories would also disappear. So I have decided to help him build a file system that includes his collections and archives.