In Sogang University, there is a lecture called “The Cosmos and the Era of Atoms”. While the lecture’s title features words like “cosmos” and “atom,” the lecture is for students who do not major in Natural Science or Engineering. Vast space has always been such a mysterious and interesting object for human beings—including people who are not scientists—that the lecture seems to quench students’ primal thirst for knowledge of space. For Sogangers curious about the cosmos but hesitant to learn about it because of their lack of scientific knowledge, The Sogang Herald interviewed a professor that teaches the course. We hope that this interview helps Sogangers choose this valuable class and extend their understanding of the universe.
1. Please introduce yourself and the class briefly.
I am researching statistical physics, which is a part of theoretical physics. Statistical physics was created by great theoretical physicists like James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann during the late 1800s. The study theoretically analyzes and predicts physical systems composed of multitudinous particles. To understand this study, you should comprehend thermodynamics first. Then, on the basic understanding of energy and entropy, you need to get a quantitative result conducting mathematical calculation and computer simulation.
The class “The Cosmos and the Era of Atoms” that I lectured in last spring semester has a goal. It should teach students two axes that have dominated physics since the 20th century—the theory of relativity and cosmology that deals with the cosmos vs. quantum mechanics that deals with atoms—without numerical formula. Prior to comprehending the subjects to some extent, you should grasp the concept of the Copernican system, kinematics of Galileo, and the dynamics of Newton. These intellectual works were made in an effort to overcome the perspective of Aristotle which had dominated western Europe about 20,000 years. Therefore, students learn about the overall history of physics and check the transition of understanding about matter, nature, and cosmos in this class. Finally, they can come to an understanding of the theory of relativity, cosmology, and quantum mechanics. It cannot be an easy task to deal with a somewhat complex, lengthy history of physics. But I expect that undergraduates, especially those who lack the background knowledge in natural science, can look at the world, nature, and the universe in a fresh perspective through such process.
2. Interests in the cosmos seem to be expanding. But, for non-Natural Science major students, it feels like the cosmos is just a “terra incognita” arousing unsolvable curiosity. What is the best way to get access to the concept of the universe?
Actually, understanding the cosmos correctly is not an easy work. Because I am not studying the cosmos as the direct subject of my research despite being a physicist, it may not be proper to answer this question. But, personally, I think reading general science books can be helpful in understanding the concept of the universe, especially those featuring detailed pictures. Additionally, I am sure that taking “The Cosmos and the Era of Atoms” can also be helpful. (laughs)
3. Could you recommend a space-related introductory book?
The most useful introductory book I think is “Universe: the definitive visual guide (Martin Rees, 2005)". The book contains significant astronomical and physical discoveries up until the early 2000s with so many pictures that it’s a great book to arouse intellectual curiosity.
4. Recently, the picture of a black hole was taken for the first time. What does this mean in the history of science?
Since my major is not Astronomy, I can’t answer this question with great authority. But it can be considered a very revolutionary change in that human beings obtained knowledge through observation about the black hole, whose existence and nonexistence has only been known by an indirect manner and whose definite physical feature has not been known. A change in human knowledge, in this case, is similar to that of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. Before Apollo 11’s landing, we knew indirectly about the surface of the moon. But, due to the landing, we have directly understood the moon.
|▲ the first image of a black hole. ⓒEvent Horizon Telescope Collaboration|
5. What do you think attracts people to cosmos?
Every one of us is an entity in the cosmos. Confronting and understanding the cosmos, a giant entire aggregation surrounding our life, lead us to be aware of our own smallness which makes us humble. Considering the massive universe that started 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang, it strikes me that looking back on littleness of us who live just 70~80 years on such a small earth may be the biggest gift the cosmos brings us.
6. Finally, you may have non-Natural Science majors in the class. Are there any hardships or pleasure that results from the special composition of your students?
Amazingly, I think my students’ intellectual level was much higher than I expected to be in the last spring semester. They asked such terrific questions during the class that it had a crucial impact on breaking my preconception that non-Natural Science major students cannot understand scientific knowledge well. As a lecturer, it was a joyful and meaningful experience for me. So, I would like to thank everyone I met in the last lecture. (:D)
Did this interview encourage you to choose this space-and-atom-related class even a little? The Sogang Herald hopes so. What lesson could students, not scientists, gain from studying the cosmos? As Prof. Kim said, it may lead students to recognize their smallness and humble them. There is a well-known quote from Carl Sagan. His quote was made along with a photograph of planet Earth taken from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers. Carl’s quote contains the same message as Prof. Kim’s interview: the smallness of human being when looked back from the cosmos.
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.
The aggregation of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there — on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.” Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994
|▲ a photograph of the earth "Pale Blue Dot" ⓒNASA|
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 한글명 “우주: 대폭발에서 블랙홀까지 모든 것을 담은 우주대백과사전”