By Stephanie Chase
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

Dr. Chung-Pei Ma is the Judy Chandler Webb Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of California at Berkeley. Among the topics she has studied are the properties of dark matter and dark energy, the cosmic microwave background, gravitational lensing, galaxy formation and evolution, supermassive black holes, and the large-scale structure of the universe.

She is also an avid violinist and studied with me while an undergraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many years later, we reconnected while she was in New York recently to give a talk at New York University.

STEPHANIE CHASE: What was your childhood like in Taiwan?

CHUNG-PEI MA: I had a very peaceful and protected childhood in Taipei. My parents are both writers and journalists and had busy careers. They provided my older brother and me with as nurturing a learning environment as they could, while leaving us with a lot of freedom to explore what we liked. Our home was filled with books, music, conversations, and the smell of coffee.

The fact my mother had a serious career in journalism and was later a senator in Taiwan set a positive example for me. I was not aware of gender inequality until I left home. 

STEPHANIE CHASE: When did you first develop an interest in classical music and the violin?

CHUNG-PEI MA: My brother, who was five years older, was taking violin lessons with David Liao and I often tagged along to the lesson. My parents at first planned to start me on the piano with Mr. Liao’s wife, but she said to wait another year when I was physically bigger. Mr. Liao kind of took pity on me and started to teach me the violin after my brother’s lesson. I was around five then.

Mr. Liao also ran and conducted a very successful youth orchestra called the Taipei Century Symphony. When I was around 8, he asked me to join the second violin section. All the other kids were teenagers and much taller, so he had to put me in the front stand for me to see and be seen. I still remember showing up for the first rehearsal without any preparation, seeing many dark notes on the first page of Mozart Symphony No. 29 in A major and having to sight read it. This piece still brings out very special feelings in me whenever I hear it, and I have since developed very good sight-reading skills.

I played in the orchestra until I left Taiwan for the US when I was about 17. We toured the US once and Europe twice. I had many fond memories of the hundreds of concerts we played over the years.

STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s a lot of concerts!

CHUNG-PEI MA: Yes, and even though almost all my childhood Sundays were spent at rehearsals, these 10 years of exposures to a wide range of repertoire made classical music an indispensable part of my life.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You were so engrossed in music as a child, what led you to study astrophysics?

CHUNG-PEI MA: I was always fascinated by the night sky and often fantasized about space travel even though Taipei had a lot of light pollution and was often cloudy. 

At school, I excelled at math and was particularly drawn to physics in middle school. I enjoyed how we could describe and predict the rhythm of the universe using math as a language.

STEPHANIE CHASE: It’s fascinating that you describe the universe as having a rhythm, but then again, Kepler created scales to demonstrate what he perceived to be the orbits of the planets, which is known as the music of the spheres.

Why did you choose MIT, and how did this come about? You essentially made this move on your own.

CHUNG-PEI MA: I left Taipei for Houston at the start of 12th grade. I went to Houston since my uncle and aunt were there and they were our closest relatives in the US.

It was my own idea to leave Taipei. I had to convince my parents to let me go. I had found the educational system in Taiwan stifling for a while and thought the US would be the best place to explore further my two passions: physics and music.

Chung-Pei Ma

STEPHANIE CHASE:  It’s clear that you are strong-willed!

CHUNG-PEI MA: One challenge I faced was it was already September when I arrived in Houston. This was the pre-internet and web era, and I knew nothing about how to apply for colleges in the US.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Were you fluent in English before you arrived?

CHUNG-PEI MA: Back then, we started English classes in 7th grade, but English is so important these days that kids there now start to learn it much earlier. I had excellent teachers in school who laid solid foundations, but I didn’t get to use it much until I came to the States.

Since I arrived so late in Houston, I had to scramble to register – and study – for the SAT and various subject tests. Fortunately, I did well enough to have several choices. It’s amusing now to think I turned down UC Berkeley and Caltech, where I would become a postdoctoral fellow later, because I thought the East Coast had more culture. MIT and the rich music scene in Boston seemed to offer exactly what I was yearning for.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Boston and Cambridge, especially, are very special places, and I really enjoyed the period that I lived in the area.

Many students go from being at the top of their class to just average at these very competitive institutions, but you clearly excelled there despite studying in a foreign language – in fact, you struck me as downright relaxed in your violin lessons. To what do you ascribe this, in addition to your immense intelligence?

CHUNG-PEI MA: Haha, thanks for the compliment. I think I learned how to compartmentalize and how to be efficient at an early age. It was born out of necessity since I had to juggle the intense school work in Taiwan and all the violin practice and youth orchestra activities. 

I am the type of person who enjoys being in the moment. I have always tried not to let the million other things distract the task in front of me. Take our violin lessons as an example. I often walked in with math symbols and physics equations swimming over my head. But the second I heard music, I would instantly transform into this other universe. I loved every minute of our lessons.

Of course, another reason I was relaxed was because you were such a perceptive and supportive teacher. You were brilliant at identifying trouble spots in my playing, yet you never made me feel discouraged or belittled, and each lesson propelled me to want to get better.

Chung-Pei Ma

STEPHANIE CHASE: Now it’s time for me to thank you for the immense compliment! I really enjoyed teaching the MIT students, but you were extra special – not only did you play very well, but you’d come in often wearing a Peanuts tee shirt, which was very endearing, and I still recall the time you were studying Paganini’s first Violin Concerto and you asked me if I knew how many notes were in the first movement’s cadenza. I took a pretty good guess, but you had actually counted them up, just because you found it interesting!

You've been a professor at Berkeley since 2001, and you specialize in the study of black holes. Could you please describe these to us ordinary people?

CHUNG-PEI MA: Black holes are spectacular end products of the fatal attraction of gravity. They are the graveyards of massive stars, those more massive than our sun. My research team is discovering and studying the most massive black holes in the universe, weighing more than 10 billion suns. These monsters live at the centers of very massive galaxies. Some questions we ask are: How did these black holes form in the early universe? How have these black holes been fed to become so massive? How do they impact the evolution of their host galaxies, including our own galaxy? Can we detect the gravitational waves emitted from a binary of massive black holes as they coalesce and merge to form a bigger black hole?

STEPHANIE CHASE: You’ve told me that, in essence, time can stand still in a black hole, depending on the location of the observer. Why is this?

CHUNG-PEI MA: The immense gravity around a black hole distorts space as well as time – it warps space and slows down clocks. Imagine you in a spaceship hovering – safely – above a black hole, and me falling towards it, while shining, say, a green-color laser beam at you. You would see the light beacon becoming redder and redder as the wavelength of the light is stretched due to both my moving away from you – the conventional Doppler redshift – and the strong gravitational distortion around the hole, the so-called gravitational redshift. But don’t try this at home, for many reasons!

[An example of the Doppler effect in daily life is when a car is honking its horn or an ambulance has a siren screaming as it moves away, in that the pitch frequency goes down.]

STEPHANIE CHASE: Many years ago, while on a concert tour, I visited a national observatory – I think it might have been Kitt Peak which was fascinating. Where are the principal telescopes used by Berkeley?

CHUNG-PEI MA: At Berkeley, as part of the University of California system, I have the privilege to use the two Keck Telescopes and the sophisticated instruments, such as spectrographs and CCD cameras, atop the volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The photo of me in front of a bunch of monitors was taken in June 2018 in the control room of the Keck Observatory in Waimei, which is on the Big Island of Hawaii. My team was using a new spectrograph on Keck for the first time here. In this picture, we were getting ready to point the telescope at the very center of a massive galaxy about 450 million light years away, where we think a giant black hole is lurking. Even with the world's largest optical telescope, we needed to open the shutter of the fancy camera and gather light from this galaxy for several hours so we can get sufficient data to study the motions the stars around the black hole.

Chung-Pei Ma at the Keck Observatory (Waimea, Hawaii)

STEPHANIE CHASE: Unfortunately, here on Earth the telescopes must be placed in increasingly remote areas due to the amount of light emitted in populated areas.

CHUNG-PEI MA: These are the largest optical telescopes on Earth. Each mirror is about 30 feet in diameter. I also use other national and international ground-based and space-based facilities, like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory. We need multiple datasets of very high quality from several telescopes to discover a single black hole – and they are black after all! Many exciting new facilities are also being built, such as the Thirty-Meter Telescope and the James Webb, which is the next Hubble Telescope.

STEPHANIE CHASE: What discovery has surprised you the most?

CHUNG-PEI MA: A running theme of my research is I use things that emit light to infer the existence of things we can’t see black holes, dark matter, dark energy. What is most surprising to me is the universe is mostly dark.

STEPHANIE CHASE: The photograph recently taken of a black hole, through the Event Horizon Telescope used by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was astonishing, mainly because of the “ring of fire” around it from gas on the so-called accretion side of the hole that clearly defines the black hole within. From your comments, I understand that telescopes from around the world are sometimes united to make this kind of observation possible, which makes these discoveries a collaborative effort. Is there ever competition between the various research entities that study black holes?

Chung-Pei Ma

CHUNG-PEI MA: Funny you mentioned it. I was just in Boston last week to attend a black hole meeting at Harvard, where I gave the opening talk. The EHT result for the black hole at the center of the galaxy M87 is indeed extremely exciting. It’s particularly meaningful for me because the size of the “ring” you mentioned enabled them to measure the black hole’s mass, and the number they got – 6 billion suns – agreed beautifully with the mass determined from the method my team has been using to discover other black holes. Our method uses the motions of stars that are orbiting very close to a black hole to measure the hole’s gravitational pull on the stars, and hence its mass. This method is applicable to many systems and has been used to find about a hundred black holes. The technique of direct imaging gets more precise measurements but is more limited – the EHT currently can only target two black holes, the one in M87, and the one at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. But scientists love, and need, confirmation from independent methods. So we are complementing rather than competing with each other. The EHT result boosts everyone’s confidence in the existence of black holes and in our results for other black holes. Now I am more excited than ever to hunt for more black holes out there in the universe and decipher their curious past.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You mentioned that black holes can merge and enlarge. Is the Earth at risk for encountering a black hole?

CHUNG-PEI MA: I know black holes really seem scary sometimes. Luckily there is vast space between stars in a galaxy. In addition, the monster at the center of the Milky Way is about 25,000 light years away. At this distance, the solar system is simply happily orbiting about the Galactic center – like how the Earth orbits about the Sun – and are not in danger of falling in. But who knows, some evil aliens may have hurled a black hole at us, which we wouldn’t know until it gets pretty close. Would you like to join my A-list of close friends to whom I would send out astrophysical impending-doom warning messages? There are many ways we the earthlings can be doomed, and past violin teachers certainly deserve a first-class seat on the escape vehicle. 

STEPHANIE CHASE: Listen, I’ll be happy in economy class, and I appreciate the offer!

Earlier, you mentioned encountering gender inequality, presumably in the United States, although I imagine it’s an issue nearly worldwide. Did this affect your career trajectory?

CHUNG-PEI MA: I have not encountered blatant unequal treatments, but we all know gender inequality is everywhere. Science endeavors can be cut throat, and you would want all the help you can get when things become competitive. Often it seems to be the cumulation of many subtler disadvantages that turn off women from pursuing a STEM career. Do orchestras still conduct earlier rounds of auditions behind curtains? It would be hard for us to interview faculty or other academic job candidates this way. I try to have a positive attitude, participating in committees and initiatives to help improve climate and equity in my community.

STEPHANIE CHASE: In regard to orchestras; I do think that some of them have made an effort to hire younger, attractive musicians, because the concert is viewed by many as a form of entertainment. However, I feel confident that they are also excellent players.

Is your work always observational or are you and your colleagues attempting to prove a theory, such as the Grand Unification Theory?

CHUNG-PEI MA: I actually started as a theorist and did my Ph.D. studying a particular version of the Grand Unified Theory. I began serious observational work about a decade ago when I wanted to check if some of our theoretical predictions about black holes and galaxies bore any resemblance in nature. I still enjoy theoretical work, and part of my black hole research requires extensive calculations on supercomputers. [A supercomputer can process many more operations per second than a regular computer.] In fact, my graduate students are burning many CPU hours computing stellar orbits around black holes in the San Diego Supercomputing Center as we speak. Having experience with both theory and data really helps me appreciate the power as well as limitations of each side.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You still play the violin on a regular basis – is there a composer whose music especially resonates with you?

CHUNG-PEI MA: I go through phases, like most people. And thanks to four years of lessons with you, I learned to interpret pieces of differing genre. One thing hasn’t changed though, and this is on my bucket list: learn and perform all 16 Beethoven string quartets. I have sight-read each one, some many times. But I would like to work on it, get coached, and play it for my friends and anyone enjoying classical music. By the way, the audio was an attempt at the first movement of Op. 59, No. 1 two years ago.

Beethoven String Quartet, Op. 59. No. 1 (Chung-Pei Ma - Violin,
Sue Soong (2nd violin), Derek Katz (viola) and Angus Davol (cello))

STEPHANIE CHASE: I’m working on his Opus 59, No. 3 for the Newport Festival – what a nice ride!

CHUNG-PEI MA: I would love to get your tips on this one! We tried to perform it a few years ago and managed not to fall apart. That last movement is a killer. Even violists, and my partner is one, who never understand why violinists bother to practice their parts before a concert, freak out when they start this movement.

Even though I was in a youth symphony for many years, I discovered chamber music was my true love during the first week of my freshman year at MIT. This sounds corny, but I fell into this black hole and there has been no return. I have lost count of the number of times I attended your Boston Chamber Music Society concerts. I still remember you breaking a string – E string I think? – near the end of the first movement of the Shostakovich E minor piano trio and magically playing to the end without interruption. 

For me, the blend of four string voices in a quartet is simply irresistible. But string quartets are also most frustrating to play since they are so unforgiving. It is really impossible for us amateurs to play in tune individually, let alone together. I guess I like challenges.

STEPHANIE CHASE: This is why it’s also rare for most music festivals to program string quartets with an ad hoc ensemble – the writing exposes intonation issues more than string trios or quintets. But they are often masterpieces, and so fulfilling as a musical experience.

You have a ten-year-old son who plays the violin.

CHUNG-PEI MA: Yes, one of the photos is of us from four years ago our son was seven then and played in a string quartet for the first time. We read a minuet movement from an early Haydn. He was super serious, sat down, and announced to the quartet that we were taking all the repeats.

Chung-Pei Ma and her son

STEPHANIE CHASE: Is he also interested in becoming a scientist?

CHUNG-PEI MA: It is truly fascinating to watch a child grow and develop. He was barely four when our discovery of the extremely massive black hole in the galaxy NGC 4889 was announced – this black hole in fact broke the 30-year-old mass record held by the M87 black hole we talked about just now. Sometimes when he tried to get my attention and I didn’t respond, he would first try: “Earth to Mommy!” When that didn’t work, he knew “NGC 4889 to Mommy” would make me jump immediately.  

He has many other interests though, the latest being playing chess. Passion about music and physics is what has fueled and sustained me over the years. He is exploring his own. I watch, guide, and find nurturing teachers and schools to help him discover and fulfill his own dreams. I tell him the sky is not the limit since current data suggest the universe has infinite volume. 

Chung-Pei Ma and her son in Death Valley (California)

STEPHANIE CHASE: I love that, and he sounds like an extraordinary child.

In your work, you exemplify the possibilities of expanding the mind to encompass things that are beyond measure and limit. In an era in which partisanship and cultural tribalism are dividing nations, not just the United States but well beyond, what is a lesson for us all – in other words, humanity – to learn from your work?

CHUNG-PEI MA: I would speak for all my fellow scientists who are studying things beyond the confines of Earth. Through decades of astrophysical research, we now know that atoms – what we are made of, and everything in the Periodic Table – constitute only about 4% of the stuff in the universe. The rest 96% is made of bizarre things called dark matter and dark energy. Who ordered them? I, and many of my astro friends, have been studying these fascinating entities for some years. We also know our Sun is a very ordinary star, the Milky Way is a run-of-the-mill galaxy, and there are trillions of galaxies like this, each containing billions of stars like the Sun. We are at some random location in the universe and definitely not at the center of anything as ancient cultures had surmised.

All of this suggests we earthlings are a real minor player in the grand symphony of the cosmos. These thoughts humble me and make me feel insignificant. But on sunnier days, I would be struck by how magical Earth is. We are the rare 4% of the universe. Yet we can sit here, contemplate the origin and fate of the universe, and importantly to me, use math and physics to predict the rhythm of heavenly bodies that can be either verified or falsified. Similar physical principles are being used to invent all the technologies affecting every minute of our lives. This is the power of science. Are we alone or are other intelligent lives already watching us? None of us knows. But I think it would take an alien invasion to stop all the fighting on Earth and to unify the nations.

STEPHANIE CHASE: That is a sobering thought, and it makes the reasons behind many of these battles seem extremely petty.

Chung-Pei, I am delighted that we have reunited after many years and thank you for so vividly expanding our horizons.



Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as “one of the violin greats of our era” (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with over 170 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their “elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination” (Boston Globe), “stunning power” (Louisville Courier-Journal), “matchless technique” (BBC Music Magazine), and “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In the Summer of 2018 she was featured at music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, and Martha's Vineyard, MA, and made her debut in Vietnam, where she performed in Hi Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.