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Quantum mechanics, semiconductors and Buddhism

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By Shim Jae-yun

Quantum mechanics has emerged as a state-of-the-art trend in the scientific world. Thanks to steady yet brilliant developments in nanotechnology, this results in a phenomenal technology that can be directly applied to the real world. For starters, the technology encompasses the use of passwords, semiconductors, and sensors. It can be regarded as surpassing Einstein's theory of relativity. As a non-science major, simply out of curiosity, I browsed through a variety of data on this subject.

Interestingly enough, beyond being a simple scientific theory, I came to realize that quantum mechanics contains a fundamental theory of physics that applies to both humans and the entire universe. More interesting to me, as a journalist, this theory contains principles that apply to various essential technologies that could enable the upward progress of civilization such as semiconductors, which some call the "rice or oil" of industry.

The atom is the smallest unit of matter in the universe. In quantum mechanics, an atomic nucleus and electrons constitute an atom. For example, the size of a hydrogen atom is one billionth of a meter, and its nucleus is far smaller. If an atom is presumed to be a football stadium, the nucleus would be a bug 3 millimeters in length. Electrons are so tiny they are almost negligible. An atom is composed of protons and neutrons in the nucleus and account for most of the mass. Electrons are distributed quantum mechanically around the nucleus and occupy most of the volume.

A hydrogen atom is the smallest known particle. As atoms get smaller, a quantum mechanical interpretation that cannot be explained by classical mechanics is required. In the world of atoms, quantum mechanics has great value, so a quantum mechanical interpretation is absolutely necessary.

In comparison, the distance between the nucleus and its electrons is said to be far greater than 10 times the distance between the Sun and Pluto. Given this, it may not be an exaggeration to say the atom is in a state of virtual emptiness.
Applying this argument, it may be safe to say that all visible matter in the universe (including plants and animals) exists in a state of virtual emptiness. The "big bang" theory does suggest that the universe was created out of "nothingness." Likewise, this could also refer to the key Buddhist teaching which says "form is emptiness and emptiness is form (色卽是空 空卽是色)." Buddhism's Flower Ornament Sutra (華嚴經 Hwaeom Gyeong/Avatamska Sutra) says "one particle of dust contains the whole universe (一微塵中 含十方世界)."

Quantum mechanics is about the behavioral pattern of particles at the atomic level, which seems to be out of step with the viewpoint of traditional physics. Quantum physics says an electron can be either a particle or a wave or both, depending on the consciousness of the observer.

This was verified in the famous "double-slit experiment" by Thomas Young in 1801. The photons appeared to have the qualities of both particles and waves, depending on whether or not an observer was present. So, it can be said our consciousness or expectations determine the behavioral patterns of electrons. The quantum mechanics advocated by Niels Bohr met fierce resistance in a scholastic paper titled, "The Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen Paradox in Atomic, Nuclear and Particle Physics." Yet Bohr's theory has gained increasing acceptance with its growing application in the real world.

In 1927, the "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum theory said the universe exists boundlessly and has overlapping potentials. They exist in a "yet-to-be fixed" form depending on human observation. In a hypothetical parallel universe, diverse worlds with different dimensions and spaces exist simultaneously, providing an alternate universe.
The New York Times bestselling author Greg Braden also referred to the uniqueness of quantum physics, saying its extraordinary element can be "ordinary." Many "uncertain" potentials can become reality, and human consciousness and/or observation are determining factors.

In Buddhism, 一切唯心造 means "all things are created by the mind," which indicates that happiness also hinges on the human mind. Electrons and semiconductor chips are similar in terms of their double-sidedness. While electrons can be both particles and waves, semiconductor chips have the characteristics of both conductors and nonconductors. Such a two-sidedness is also seen in the human mind in the forms of "optimism vs. negativity" and "good vs. evil." Depending on one's choices, the consequences are totally different. Ultimately, people create their own destiny as a result of the choices they make based on their perceptions.

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman confessed about the difficulties he had understanding the essence of quantum electro mechanics. Semiconductors have already been reduced in size to several nanometers, and in the future many quantum phenomena will rely on semiconductors smaller than 1 nanometer, even without our complete understanding of quantum mechanics.

Therefore, the current structure and design of semiconductors would not be possible without quantum mechanics. Semiconductors are at the center of a growing rivalry between two super powers: the United States and China. At the same time, other nations, including South Korea, are desperate to get a share of the market to survive. Among others, the mechanics offer clues to the wisdom needed to recognize the principle of the universe. It seems to have become the ultimate target of research and mental exploration for people seeking happiness based on peace of mind which Buddhism and other religions pursue.

How to accept constantly changing external factors may determine the mindset and happiness of an individual. One may create his or her own destiny depending on the choices they make. "The new science of epigenetics reveals how the choices you make change your genes ― and those of your kids," John Cloud, Times' senior writer.

The author ( is an editorial writer for The Korea Times.

Shim Jae-yun


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