[Outlook]One small step for Yi

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[Outlook]One small step for Yi

April is designated as Science Month in Korea. This year’s designation will be special because the nation has sent its first astronaut into space. Korean citizens watched the life of an astronaut on TV and felt the power of high-tech science. People saw that trips into space are no longer just the stuff of science-fiction. In this sense, April 2008 can be remembered as a breakthrough in Korea’s scientific history.
However, we should calm down a little and face reality. Thirty-five countries have produced astronauts before us. Korea is 47 years behind Russia, which sent the world’s first human being into space in 1961. Japan has already had eight astronauts, and Malaysia had an astronaut before Korea. Korea’s first astronaut came late, especially considering its economy is in the world’s top 15.
We were so late because Koreans thought that development of science and technology was entirely for scientists and engineers. We have made few efforts to popularize science and made few investments in basic science.
But we can see what should be done from now on to help science and technology advance. This is the right time to make efforts because people have increased interest in science after seeing the first Korean astronaut. We should make people more familiar with science and shouldn’t skimp on investment in basic science.
Popularization of science will come when the culture of science spreads. Science is seen as being its own unique type of culture, just like the performing arts and other forms of art.
People enjoy science through a variety of activities, such as launching water rockets, piloting miniature aircraft and flying hot-air balloons. The Korea Science Foundation has long made efforts to encourage this kind of citizen participation, organizing a variety of events and promoting them on the Internet.
However, the phrase “culture of science” is still unfamiliar to many Koreans. It isn’t easy to narrow the gap between science and the populace. The general public nonetheless should get a better understanding of science and become familiar with it, even though they do not work in the science field. Research and development of science and technology is absolutely necessary in order to overcome crises in food, energy and the environment, which the whole world is now facing. This can be done only when people form a consensus to make massive investments and offer massive support.
Meanwhile, scientific research can raise ethical and social problems and can even threaten the survival of humankind. Thus, the direction and limitations placed upon scientific studies can’t be set only by scientists. People must understand science to keep it in check.
Competitiveness in science and technology defines the competitiveness of countries. Therefore, we should create an environment in which talented youths become interested in science and technology and work in the field.
The concept of the culture of science seems unfamiliar because of the gulf between the sciences and the humanities. C.P. Snow, a scientist whose writings about this separation was influential, said this gulf was created because scientists had developed exclusive scientific knowledge with terminology that only they understood. Therefore, scientists must take the initiative in tearing down the wall. Recently, scientists are making efforts to get closer to the populace, through the media, Internet portals and by holding exhibitions on science, giving lectures and building science museums. We should spare no expense to help science teachers become more capable and knowledgeable because they are on the front line with the youth who will lead Korea into the future.
On April 19, 2008, Yi So-yeon, Korea’s first astronaut, returned to Earth safely after her 12-day stay in space. We should make every effort to spread the culture of science so that Yi’s success and efforts, which gave confidence and hope to all Koreans, won’t be one-time events. Only then will there be more Korean astronauts who travel into space in spacecraft made someday with Korean technology.
April 2008 should be remembered as a time when a stepping stone for the development of space technology in Korea was established.

*The writer is a professor of food science and technology and vice dean of Yeungnam University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jae-sung
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