Yin and Yang and Particle Physics

By Wolpert, Lewis | The Independent (London, England), October 12, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Yin and Yang and Particle Physics


Wolpert, Lewis, The Independent (London, England)


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.

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