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Cao Jun | Institute of High Energy Physics | P.R. China

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A scientist memorized at the Dragon Boat Day

Qu YuanMay 28 is the Dragon Boat Day of this year. I was on mission to Xia Men and returned to Beijing late at night.

The Dragon Boat Day is to memorize Qu Yuan, a pioneer of Chinese poem lived in 2300 years ago. My hometown is on the route of his exile. The traditions are rich. Qu Yuan compared himself with vanilla and beautiful woman. In “Nine Chaunts, Xiang Lady”, he wrote, “Vanilla lives on the Yuan river and orchid lives on the Li river, I miss the noble man but could not speak out.” Later on the Li river has an alias the orchid river, and the Yuan river the vanilla river. My hometown has a lot places named after the orchid river, such as Orchid River Bridge, Orchid River Park, Orchid River Mall, and Orchid River Theatre. The Vanilla River Airport was the second largest airport of the Allied Force in the Far East during the World War II.

The traditions at the Dragon Boat Day include Dragon Boat competition, Eating Zongzi (glutinous rice dumpling), hanging orris, bathing with mugwort water, drinking arsenic sulphide spirit, etc. Probably due to local limitation, I haven’t seen the most famous tradition Dragon Boat competition. I drinked the arsenic sulphide spirit when I was young, and smeared it on the forehead. Later on we knew it is poisonous and nobody do that now. Mugwort is “heaven grass”. My mother brought some recently for my daughter, and made tea to alleviate the indigestion.

The great poet has been memorized by Chinese for 2300 years. This tradition is extended to many countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia. However, it is not so well known that he is not only a poet and a politician, but also a scientist with deep thoughts as Aristotle, who was born 40 years earlier. Probably natural philosopher is a better title for him. Anyway natural philosophy is an alias of physics. In one of his poem, Heaven Questions, he asked many questions about the cosmos.

Positivistic judgment, rational analysis, and peer review are several characteristics of modern science. In Heaven Questions, he asked “it is said that the heaven is nine-tiered, but who measured it?” That’s typical positivistic judgment. “There are so many corners (at the intersection of the heaven and the earth), who knows the number?” That’s quantitative analysis. It is very different from the later popular reasoning in China such as “Confucius said” or “Chairman Mao said”.

Due to the highly simplified ancient Chinese and its age old, there are many different explanation to the verses in Heaven Questions. Prof. T.D. Lee pointed out in “Physics and Astronomy in Ancient China” that the verse “Who live in the intersection of the nine-tiered heaven (and the earth)? There are so many corners (at the intersection of the heaven and the earth), who knows the number?” actually inquires the contradiction of the theory “the heaven is round and the earth is a square”. If the theory is true, then the heaven and the earth must have intersections. Who live there and see it? There must be many corners thus not natural. Therefore, the heaven is round, and the earth must be round. The first two verses in the poem also point out a contradiction. “Who knows and circulates the state of the beginning of the universe? The heaven and the earth has not been formed yet, how to testify it?” These are typical rational analyses. Of course Qu Yuan didn’t know the light speed is limited. By observing the galaxies ten billions light-years far away from us, we could know the universe ten billion years ago, even approach the beginning of the universe.

As a poet, Qu Yuan got tons of peer reviews. Every educated Chinese know some of his verses. As a natural scientist, he got very few comments from his “peers”. TD Lee says a lot in his article mentioned above. At Xiang Shan Science Conferences in 2005, Prof. Bing-Lin Young cited his verse “that’s such a large project (to measure the tiers of the heaven), who’s the pioneer to complete it?” to encourage the Daya Bay reactor neutrino experiments. Anyway, scientists versed in ancient Chinese are few.

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