The Chinese character Yu (煜) means the effulgence of a flame. In this sense, Yu Gao (高煜) literally signifies a brilliance radiating in the sky. On September 29, 1963, when Yu was born in Tianshui city, Qinan county, Gansu province, his parents gave him a name imbued with hope. Little did they know that this name would symbolize a portrait of his life journey.
At the age of 7, to care for his grandparents, Yu accompanied his parents on their job relocation back to their hometown, Wuhe, in the Anhui province. As the oldest son in a family where both parents were middle school teachers, he was often asked—when they were busy with work or were being publicly denounced for “inferior family origin”—to skip school to take care of his younger siblings or to do household chores. His formal education did not start until he reached the fourth grade. In the 1970s, elementary school education in rural China consisted of half-schooling and half-farming. Middle schoolers upon graduation were required to “go up the mountains and down the countryside.” Worried about his future, Yu’s parents sent him to study painting and the traditional Chinese string instrument, Erhu. In only three years, he had mastered both arts so well that he was invited at an early age to produce propaganda posters for the commune and to perform the Erhu for his school and the commune propaganda team. Although the ideology that learning is useless reigned in the 1970s, Yu’s thirst for knowledge compelled him to learn with passion and fervor. In his upper elementary school years, he was often found hiding under his parents’ office table, voraciously reading through the rare book “One Hundred Thousand Whys.” When the college entrance examination was finally reinstated in 1977, Yu took to it like a duck to water, securing nearly all the championships of the high school science competitions held in that small county. In 1979, Yu was admitted— as he had wished— into the School of Earth and Space Sciences department at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC).
During his college years, Yu was deeply inspired and influenced by the renowned astrophysicist Dr. Fang Li-Zhi, the Vice President of USTC. In 1983, he met and fell in love with a native from his hometown, Guilin (Linda) Huang. After his college graduation, Yu was admitted directly to the doctorate program of the Astrophysics Center at USTC, studying under the tutelage of the academic fellow Dr. Zhou You-Yuan. In 1988, Yu and Linda were married in the Anhui province.
In 1989, Yu received the opportunity to immigrate to the USA to study with Dr. Philip Solomon at The State University of New York at Stony Brook. Bringing just his hopes and dreams and one hundred dollars in his pocket borrowed from his friend, Yu seized the moment and made the move overseas from the life he’d known in China to the bustling cities of New York. Linda followed suit to join her husband in New York shortly after, and in 1992, Yu’s first daughter Lucy was born in Stony Brook. In 1996, Yu completed his doctorate degree in astronomy and moved his family from New York to Illinois in order to begin his postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). That fall, Yu’s second daughter, Anita, was born. From 1996 to 2004, he worked sequentially as a postdoctoral researcher and a senior research scientist at UIUC; University of Toronto, Canada; California Institute of Technology; and UMass Amherst. The last major move was in 1999, when the family settled down in Thousand Oaks, California, the place his daughters consider their hometown. Because of his work, Yu traveled extensively across America, China, Europe, and South-East Asia, as well as various other countries and continents. Whenever he returned home, however, Yu would make sure to spend quality time with his wife and daughters, catch up with housework, and care for his daughters’ grandparents. In 2004, Yu returned to China to be employed as a Chief Scientist at the Purple Mountain Observatory, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). From 2007 to 2022, he also taught as an Adjunct Professor at Beijing University. From 2019 to 2022, he worked as a Distinguished Professor at Xiamen University. Although seemingly a man of few words, Yu was warm-hearted and humble by nature, always ready to invite colleagues and friends to his home whom he enjoyed chatting vivaciously with.
A prestigious Chinese professor and astronomer widely recognized internationally, Yu served as a board member of the James Webb Space Telescope, and as a committee member of the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM), as well as the Chief Scientist of China’s Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou province. He was also one of the founding members of China-Korea-Japan’s East Asian Observatory. Yu organized numerous international astrophysics conferences and worked as the editor-in-chief of professional publications. Furthermore, Yu was honored with a Special Contribution Award at the centennial anniversary of the Chinese Astronomical Society.
In April 2022, even though Yu began feeling unwell on his trip to the conference held in France, he stayed dedicated to his work. After returning from France, with his body still ailing, Yu insisted on driving to pay tribute to Dr. Fang Li-Zhi in his cemetery. On the evening of May 5, Yu was hospitalized at the Santa Monica Medical Center, and he was subsequently transferred on May 11 to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center for a series of medical checkups to evaluate the feasibility of a liver transplant. Despite the severity of his illness, Yu’s mind was so fixed on his students and the education of young astrophysics scholars that, at 6:00 pm on May 14, he managed to conduct a Zoom meeting with spirited vigor for the Gifted Astrophysicists Camp held by Xiamen University.
On Yu’s final day, his wife Linda, his older daughter Lucy and her husband Andrew who stayed connected virtually from Boston, and his younger daughter Anita and her boyfriend Peter were all by his side, holding his hands through the long night. On the morning of May 21, 2022 at approximately 6 A.M., Yu Gao passed away peacefully in the presence of his loved ones.
Like a brilliant star shooting through the sky, Yu shined in the world of astrophysics that he loved so deeply. In the world that he trod with his feet, he cast behind a legacy of never-ending love.
Rest in peace, Yu Gao. We love you forever.
(Translation from Chinese to English by Dr. De-Yin Jeng)