Cao Yuan, a 22-year-old doctoral candidate in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was named one of the 10 people who mattered this year by the journal Nature on Wednesday for discovering a “magic angle” in graphene sheets that spurred a new field of superconductor physics.
The physics prodigy from Chengdu, Sichuan province, is the third Chinese scientist in five years to make Nature’s list for pushing scientific development. Pan Jianwei, a world-leading quantum scientist, and Chen Hualan, an expert on bird flu, made the list in 2017 and 2013, respectively.
Cao finished his middle and high school curricula in two years. By age 18, he had completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province. He then went to the United States to pursue a doctoral degree under MIT physics professor Pablo Jarillo-Herrero.
Young and shy, but a passionate “tinkerer” in electronics and chemistry, Cao’s hobbies include photographing the night sky using homemade cameras, Jarillo-Herrero said. “Every time I go in (Cao’s office), it’s a huge mess, with computers taken apart and pieces of telescope all over his desk,” he told Nature.
Cao has also shown maturity beyond his years, Jarillo-Herrero said, praising the young student for not being fazed by failures or misdirection in research. “He just rolled up his sleeves and continued working.”
In March, Cao surprised the nanoscience community by discovering graphene can potentially be an insulator－a material that resists electricity－or a superconductor－a material that conducts electricity without resistance－by slightly changing the alignment of two graphene layers sandwiched together, according to two papers he published in Nature.
Graphene, first discovered in 2004, is a flat, honeycomblike grid made of a single layer of carbon atoms. It has emerged as one of the most promising nanomaterials for its useful properties, such as being the thinnest and strongest material in the world, and more electrically conductive than copper.