Beyond the Rising Sun

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, December 3, 2005

Korea has a relationship with Japan very much like that of Ireland to England. The Irish hate the British for occupying their country and are easily provoked at the very mention of England. "LOOK at what those people did to us," they will say. But when they cool down, they regain their composure and calmly continue copying everything England does. Koreans often jump at the chance to tell you just how little their neighbor to the east matters, but deep down the country against which they benchmark themselves and look to for economic prototypes is not the US but Japan.

I am pondering this at the moment because I am on the Big Island of Hawaii attending a small conference on materials physics with some Japanese colleagues. It is the same concept as Korean scientists going to Jeju, except with bigger budgets. In either case, the pain of listening to endless Power Point presentations must be compensated by the fun and beauty of a nice venue. Attending this conference is part of the price I agreed to pay for receiving a small research grant from the Japanese government many years ago. It is the last conference of its kind, unfortunately. The project has now come to an end.

I am not actually at the conference at the moment, but out on a black lava outcrop by the Pacific listening to waves crash and wind blow menacingly through nearby palm trees. A little storm blew in earlier and is now happily disrupting the peace. It is pitch dark. The sun set long ago, and clouds now cover the moon so completely that you cannot distinguish sky from sea. Out of the blackness, ocean swells sneak up unexpectedly, like lions leaping out of ambush, attacking and retreating back into the night before you realize what has happened. They leave behind dirty foam swirling about the rocks, revealed only by the pale fire of a few tiki lamps fluttering in the wind.

The mood of the conference on this last day was superficially upbeat, but in fact very somber. Like many of us, these particular colleagues are adept at drowning their sorrows in work, and had gone from eight in the morning to ten at night without a break on occasion. But it was impossible now to hide the underlying sense of defeat. It was the end of an era. We had all bet with our careers that a certain line of inquiry would lead to great discoveries and scientific glory, but our respective governments had tired of waiting and elected to divert the research money elsewhere. We were all feeling as though we had repeatedly lost a low-risk wager at roulette, laid down your last money for one final spin, and lost again.

There is an important lesson here for Korean students obsessed with career safety and security. The individuals in our group are not the worst scientists in the world but the very best, for each of us has made a significant discovery in the past. Yet here we are on this bleak island manfully facing uncertainty caused by failure. While this is unsettling for us, it is neither shameful nor unthinkable, for we all understand that significant scientific advances, like significant business accomplishments, are never achieved without risk. A researcher who does not fail occasionally is simply someone not trying hard enough. Far from lagging behind Koreans in understanding this principle, these Japanese colleagues are far, far advanced.

Thus you Koreans have competition. Immense courage and strength, not just planning, will be required to reach beyond the rising sun.

When we are young we often imagine the march of progress to be inexorable and steady, like a well-planned military campaign. But this is not so. It is interrupted now and then by violence, like the volcanic eruptions that built these islands. The ground opens up and vomits out fire and death, and the things you held dear and worked a lifetime to build are swept away in an instant and entombed. But the violence creates new land, and small animals and plants begin colonizing this land and building afresh. Over time they create a world you never imagined.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]