[SCIENCE WORLD]The nature of things

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[SCIENCE WORLD]The nature of things

An inquiring child is often fully capable of sending an adult into an abyss of ignorance. Take this example: You are asked why the moon changes in shape. You are probably able to answer that it's because of the movement of the universe. You might even bring out a sphere, a lamp and a baseball bat, turn out the lights and demonstrate the revolutions of the moon. The child might then ask why the moon revolves. You might then talk about Newton's Law and universal gravitation.

If the child asks what causes the law of universal gravitation, now you will likely be lost. What the child did was ask three questions, sending you into that abyss. This is not a peculiar situation; given any set of three questions, you would probably realize the limits of your knowledge.

Before scientific discoveries reached their current status, there were attempts to explain natural phenomena by using the nature of objects. A theory went, for example, that there is a tendency in objects made of elements similar to that of the earth to fall to earth. The heavier the object, the more elements there were of such a nature, and thus the object would fall faster. This theory was disputed by Galileo and proved false through experiments. An object's fall was due to gravity, and the speed was identical for all objects.

A theory about the movement of the universe also said that the universe existed completely, and therefore its movement would be circular. This was part of a hypothesis that believed the moon revolved around the Earth. That was disproved through observations of the universe, which showed the movements were elliptical.

The property of an object is also beyond explanation only through its nature. Oxygen mixed with hydrogen becomes water, and if mixed with carbon becomes carbon dioxide. But no matter how hard you look inside oxygen, there is no sign of carbon dioxide.

The properties of water and carbon dioxide were created from an interaction between oxygen and some other element. It is in the nature of such a union that determines which of a number of possibilities is realized.

In Buddhism, every existence is considered to be selfless. This concept, or at least the way it is expressed, derives from the idea of atman, a Hindu expression for self. The concept also implies that the world is created by unions of objects that are void of natures of their own.

According to this philosophy, the world is based on the relationships between objects that are meaningless by themselves. It is with atoms and then molecules, compounds, basic life forms and then life itself that the world and the universe are eventually created. And because the relationships are countless, there is bound to be limitless variety in the world. It is because of the variety that, despite the realization of ignorance, we are happy when observing nature.

The writer is a professor of physics at Korea University.

by Yang Hyung-jin

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