[Viewpoint]The ‘fools’ of science

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[Viewpoint]The ‘fools’ of science

As changes in society take place at a faster speed, people seem to think and act hastily. Many prefer fast food over a full-course meal, and more are choosing sensational news on TV and the Internet instead of print journalism. Instant culture and emotional action is a global trend, but its severity in Korea is worrisome because the trend is mixed with Korea’s motto of “Hurry! Hurry!”

In his keynote address at the seminar of the Meerae Imagination Institute, Lee Myung-hyun, honorary professor of philosophy at Seoul National University, described the situation by saying, “Most people pay attention to what is in front of them at the moment and struggle to obtain it. They treat farsighted people as fools.”

The more serious problem is that this lightweight approach is spreading into the intellectual community, which should think about and lead the community’s future. Instead of writing in-depth research papers, university professors prefer publishing short columns. When they select a research topic, how easy it will be to get it published is considered a critical factor.

The academia of science and technology is no exception. Instead of spending a long time on one research topic, scientists often select trendy subjects and publish several short papers rather than writing one influential report. Such practices probably come from the quantitative evaluation system, and also contribute greatly to Korea becoming the 13th largest producer of research papers in such a short period of time.

However, the greatest achievements of modern science were accomplished by the “foolish” scientists ?? not the ones who were good at getting their names in research journals ?? because they devoted decades to researching one topic. While Isaac Newton, the British physicist, is known as the pioneer of modern science, his predecessors Johann Kepler, a German astronomer, and Tycho Brahe, an astronomer from Denmark, contributed greatly to the foundation of Newton’s Mechanics.

Brahe studied the movements of more than 1,000 stars and planets with his eyes for over 30 years and left detailed notes about his observations. Kepler, who was an assistant to Brahe, found three mathematical laws of planetary motion, known as Kepler’s Laws, after more than 20 years of study on the data collected by his mentor.

Those achievements later served as the groundwork for Newton’s finding of the law of universal gravity and convincing people to accept it.

Masatoshi Koshiba, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics, is another “foolishly honest” researcher.

Koshiba studied the neutrino, one of the subatomic particles from space, his entire life. He is praised for creating a new field of research, neutrino-astronomy and “opening a new window to space.”

For his neutrino research, Koshiba built a special underground detector, a huge tank filled with a thousand tons of water, in an unused mine in Japan. He then succeeded in detecting a series of neutrinos from an exploding star 170,000 light-years away, and his efforts attracted the world’s attention.

The number of neutrinos that Koshiba’s team was able to hunt down at the time was only 12. With such a slim possibility, many will say that it is foolish to prepare for an explosion of a supernova. However, without Koshiba’s “foolish” spirit, we would have remained far more ignorant about the secrets of the universe’s creation.

Korea is in the middle of turmoil domestically and internationally. The science and technology community, which is responsible for the future of this nation, must not be disturbed. Coming up with the sources of future growth and developing technologies to counter the energy and resource crisis are only a few of their tasks.

However, Korea’s scientists and engineers are suffering from speculations about the consolidation and shutdown of state-funded research institutes and a reshuffle of institution heads. The environment is not stable for these “foolish” scientists to concentrate on their work.

Koshiba’s research was fully funded by the Japanese government. The Japanese willingly paid for a long-term project with no possibility of making money and no guarantee of seeing a research outcome.

The Korean government, which is obsessed with short-term changes and outcomes, must learn a lesson from this .


*The writer is the dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung
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