[Outlook]A son blossoms, a mother bloomsIt has been exactly 30 years since Dr. Lee Hui-so, widely known to the public as the main character in the Korean novel “Mugungwha Has Blossomed,” passed away. He was one of the most prominent theoretical physicists in the world and now it is time to look back on his life and pay tribute to his memory. Last month, Lee’s mementoes and 90 letters he had sent to his mother during his overseas studies were donated to the museum of Korea University. They had been in the possession of Lee’s wife.
Meanwhile, a memoir about Lee was published recently by Kang Ju-sang, professor emeritus of Korea University ― Kang’s Ph.D. dissertation was supervised by Lee. The book was based on a large collection of material and its balanced interpretation greatly helps us to understand Lee’s scholarly achievements and personal life.
As Kang pointed out, the belief that Lee’s death in a mysterious road traffic accident was somehow associated with an attempt by South Korea to develop nuclear weapons is a fictional fantasy and should be discarded completely. Above all, Lee was an authority in particle physics, and by no means a nuclear physicist. Perhaps it stimulated the fictional imagination of the author of “Mugungwha Has Blossomed” that Dr. Oppenheimer, the former Director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where Lee later worked, was the key figure in developing nuclear weapons for the United States during World War II and that the Enrico Fermi Institute, where Dr. Oppenheimer also worked as a theoretical physicist, was named after the man who developed the first nuclear reactor.
However, it is nothing but a flight of the imagination to relate the Korean nuclear development project of the 1970s with Lee, who stated unequivocally that such a project should never take place in a developing country under a dictatorship.
When we reflect on the last half century of world history we come to see that the fire of nationalism has been an explosive force in both politics and the military when it is associated with the lust for nuclear development. Indeed, the developments on the Korean peninsula with regard to nuclear issues is one such case. Controversies surrounding Lee’s death can be seen as a reflection of such historical phenomena.
Friends of Dr. Lee who knew him from boyhood may not understand the details of his achievements in physics but they can easily see the extent of his scholarly authority from the fact that eight physicists have received Nobel prizes after basing their research on Lee’s work. Thus they feel deep sorrow over his early death at the age 42.
In the exhibition of Lee’s mementoes, what captivates visitors most are the letters he sent to his mother, rather than his research notes with their complicated formulas or memos from Oppenheimer. Lee never forgot to write to his mother, wherever he was. His mother may not have understood Lee’s letters, which described detailed proceedings from physics conferences in many parts of the world, but it’s easy to imagine how proud and happy she was.
Lee’s father passed away when he was 18 and his mother devoted herself to his education. She was a guide and supporter his entire life, whom he loved and respected. In a letter he wrote after reading “Gone with the Wind” in the summer of 1956, he said: “The social circumstances of the Civil War period in the U.S. are much the same as those in Korea a few years ago. I feel like it is our own story. Mother, do you remember that we had the same experience when we were staying in Gwangneung during the Korean War? You also have overcome all of these difficulties. You are my pride and the source of my power. Your beautiful and noble appearance is now flashing through my mind.”
Lee was an exceptional physicist. Yet, his achievements were only possible because of his mother’s influence. He also had the blessing to meet good teachers who recognized his genius when he was young and prepared opportunities for his success. But, behind such talent and luck, there was the unfathomable love and rigorous discipline of his mother.
In one letter, Lee summarizes the achievements accomplished by mother and son together in this way: “The knowledge we have just discovered will be a gift for the next generation. Exactly who made this discovery may be forgotten, but the inspiration and its outcome, produced by one age and one nation, will be remembered forever.”
It is a story for today’s young mothers to pass along to their children.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo