Kerson Huang: Chen Ning Yang and I Ching

When I was a postdoctoral fellow in physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, I worked with Chen Ning Yang on a problem of statistical mechanics. Every morning we would have heated arguments in his office, but rarely, if ever, did we speak about anything other than physics, so concentrated was our interest.

Earlier, Yang had collaborated with Tsung Dao Lee of Columbia University in an attempt to resolve an outstanding puzzle of the time concerning the so-called “weak interactions.” In a series of now-classic papers, they had made the bold proposal that nature is not left-right symmetric. Specifically, they suggested that left-right symmetry is violated because the neutrino, a spinning subatomic particle important for the weak interactions (which also happens to be indispensable in the nuclear process that causes the sun to shine), always “spins to the left,” like an advancing left-handed screw.

The proposal led to very specific experimental predictions, and Chien Shiung Wu, an experimental physicist at Columbia, set out to test it with a team at the National Bureau of Standards. After six months of hard work, she and her co-workers verified that left-right symmetry was indeed violated. The news sent shock waves through the physics community, and Lee and Yang were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics the following year.

I remember the morning when Yang learned of the news of the downfall of parity. He was excited about the new outlook on physics the discovery brought. Then he said suddenly, “Let’s ask the I Ching.” We threw the coins in his office and got the hexagram 53 PROGRESS:

Favorable for a maiden’s marriage.
Auspicious omen.

The body of the hexagram emphasizes that progress comes only gradually.

I think Yang was a little disappointed, but the I Ching has proven to be prophetic. By knocking down a sacred cow, Lee and Yang had led physics across a threshold, beyond which an immense vista opened up. A long fuse was lit, which has been sputtering for thirty years, illuminating vast domains in particle physics and leading to furious attempts to probe matter at a deeper level, even to plumb dimensions beyond space-time. But why the neurino should be a “left-handed screw” still remains a deep mystery, and perhaps holds the key to further progress.

Strangely enough, the I Ching had never come up in our conversations until that morning. Yet, by the mere fact that we shared a certain Chinese cultural background, it was taken for granted that we both knew about the I Ching. Neither of us believed that the I Ching could predict the future, in the sense that physics predicts the future in certain systems, but there was the unspoken understanding that to consult it was to solemnize the moment.

From chapter 6, “I Ching and Physics” of the book I Ching by Kerson Huang and Rosemary Huang (Workman Publishing, New York, 1987).


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