Yin and Yang and particle physics

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: THE CHINESE APPROACH TO SCIENCE
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The Independent Culture
Yin and Yang are very important in Chinese thought. Surprisingly, it may even influence in a positive way scientific research, as I discovered when I visited Professor Luo who leads an excellent group of theoretical biologists at the Inner Mongolian University in Hohhot.

When Luo trained as a theoretical physicist in Beijing in the Fifties there were no higher degrees in China so he never got a doctorate. He came to Hohhot as a lecturer and was a successful research worker, publishing 70 papers - about half of them in English - on the physics of fundamental particles. Then, in 1982, the Chinese Nobel Laureate in physics, C N Yang, declared that for particle physics "The party is over". By that he meant that the experiments, on which theoreticians based their work, had become too costly as they required accelerators to have very high energies.

In response, Luo, who believed numerous problems in biology required an explanation in terms of physics, turned to theoretical biology and the problem of how long molecules, like proteins, fold up. It was here that Yin and Yang, and even dialectical materialism, were possibly influential.

In China dialectical materialism is taught to all students at both school and university. In essence this claims that "material" is first and underlies mental processes, that all theory should be based on practice, and that there are two sides to everything - contradictions which lead to unification. This latter Marxist dogma is remarkably similar to the ancient idea of Yin and Yang that came from Taoism. These are two complementary forces that permeate the universe, and whose interactions lead ultimately to perfect harmony. It is a concept with which all Chinese intellectuals are familiar. Luo was influenced by these ideas in his understanding of how a protein folds up. Some regions of a protein are attracted by water and others are repelled, a Yin and a Yang, which control the folding up of the protein into a stable form.

Could this make a Chinese approach to science special? Not at all, for though it could have fed Luo's imagination, it was probably this type of mysticism that prevented the Chinese from discovering science. Luo accepts without hesitation that there was neither a Chinese Archimedes or Newton and that there is nothing special about Chinese science; science is universal and based on its western origins. Even so, it is puzzling that Chinese doctors who practise acupuncture, though trained in western physiology, still believe in the mystical concept of a life energy.

Then came the cultural revolution in 1966. Scientists were required to attend enormously time-consuming political meetings almost daily, creating an atmosphere in which research was all but impossible. The effects on science were disastrous yet Mao, Luo believes, was not anti-science.

Scientists, though, were intellectuals and so belonged to a group regarded as bourgeois capitalists. Publication of all Chinese scientific journals was stopped, although Luo could still read foreign journals and was helped to continue his research by maintaining an almost daily correspondence with a colleague in Nanjing.

While things are much better now, there are new problems. Salaries for academics are minimal, a professor would be well paid on pounds 200 a month. In spite of the low cost of living, few young Chinese wish to enter academic science and go instead for where the money is - technology. There is also a very serious brain drain to the USA.

I was unexpectedly an honoured guest in Hohhot and so very embarrassed, but my Yang was, I hope, balanced by their Yin, and so there was pleasure and harmony all round.

Lewis Wolpert lectures at University College London

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