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Student corrects error in Nobel Prize report

By ZHANG ZHIHAO | China Daily | Updated: 2023-03-30 09:25

What's your proudest moment in college? Scoring straight As on a report card? Landing that coveted internship at your dream company? For a sophomore electronics major at Tsinghua University, it was correcting a mistake by the Nobel Prize committee and later receiving a thank you note.

In December, a student going by the alias Mu Qing was doing physics homework when he discovered an error in the last equation on page 11 of the scientific background report on the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics, according to Tsinghua University, who shared the story on Friday.

The story recently went viral on Chinese social media, attracting over 11 million views on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo in two days.

The equation was about quantum entanglement, a strange phenomenon in which two photons or other quantum entities behave as one unit even if spatially separated. Quantum entanglement is at the heart of many quantum technologies, including quantum computing, encryption and communication.

The correct equation should have positive signs for all four factors on the right side of the equation instead of two positives and two negatives as was shown in the report.

Mu was perplexed at first. After all, he thought he was just a brash newcomer to physics who had the gall to question the highest authority in the field. Moreover, the erroneous labeling was inconsequential since it didn't affect the conclusion of the calculation.

But the error kept gnawing at his mind, so Mu asked his professor Wang Xiangbin for help. Instead of being dismissive of the inquiry, Wang patiently tackled the problem with Mu late into the night. After several rounds of calculations, they confirmed that the Nobel committee had made a mistake.

Wang later presented the correction to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Sara Gustavsson, communications officer at the academy, recently replied to Wang, thanking him and Mu for notifying the academy about the error.

After the story went viral, Mu asked reporters to keep him anonymous because he hadn't created any notable scientific breakthroughs. "When I get to make something really impressive, then please publish my real name," he said.

Wang said the quality he treasures the most from his students is the spirit of inquisitiveness. "Even if it was just a clerical error, it should be promptly corrected," he said.

Through this event, Wang said his students should learn that in science, everyone is equal, and there is no absolute authority. "Everybody can pose a legitimate question. Such is the beauty of physics and academia," he said.

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