The Korea Herald


Eight-year-old physics genius enters university


Published : April 6, 2010 - 17:38

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Song Yoo-geun, 8, wants to build flying cars, defying Newton`s law of gravity, and the physics genius which has made him Korea`s youngest university student may very well drive him to that dream.
Amid scholastic achievements that have confounded experts, the public spotlight is squarely on the child prodigy and his parents, both 46 and both former teachers. What has made Yoo-geun - born late November 1997 and actually just shy of 8 years old - so special?
His parents differ from the vast majority of Korean parents who show a passion approaching zeal for their children`s education.
"No fixed daily routines for our boy," said Yoo-geun`s parents. "Yoo-geun has a monthly schedule only. Rather than being confined by a rigid timetable, Yoo-geun has the freedom to explore every field he wants to."
While other children his age are first graders at elementary school, he is a freshman at the Physics Department of Inha University in Incheon, west of Seoul.

He set a record by completing elementary, junior-high and high school curricula in just nine months - a progression that normally takes Koreans 12 years - before being admitted to university.
With no school record to rely on for screening Yoo-geun`s qualifications, the university tested him through an interview in October. He surprised professors by explaining the Schroedinger equation, which is of central importance to the theory of quantum mechanics.
Experts say the equation, proposed by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger in 1925, plays a role analogous to Newton`s second law in classical mechanics.
It`s no wonder then that Yoo-geun is now a national figure and the focus of media attention. People are curious about his mental capabilities and how he will be taught at university. They also want to know how he is different from ordinary children and how he has been brought up.
"Once we took Yoo-geun to a zoo. There he was looking at animals for four and a half hours straight. It was when he was three or four years old. We thought then that he was either a prodigy or the opposite," his father Song Soo-jin said in an interview with The Korea Herald at his apartment in Guri, Gyeonggi Province.
The interview was conducted mainly with the senior Song since Yoo-geun is lacking in his ability to communicate with adults.
"I think it`s good to let my son do whatever he wants," the father said. According to him, when Yoo-geun is engrossed in solving math problems or doing games, he often concentrates on them for up to 14 or 15 hours. "He likes to reach conclusions, even it takes a long time."
He said his son wants his to undertake research at CERN, the world`s largest particle physics laboratory near Geneva.
Yoo-geun`s dream is to make flying cars, based on the superstring theory - an attempt by science to explain all particles and forces of nature by representing them as vibrations of tiny strings.
"It goes against Newton`s law. Everything on earth gets drawn to the surface by gravity, but in the case of flying cars, it`s different," Song said. "There should exist the same opposite magnitude of power as the earth`s gravity-pull. So, a balance is formed between gravity and reaction, which makes flying cars float in the atmosphere," he explained.
"To study more on flying cars and the super-string theory, Yoo-geun wants to join CERN," the father said.
Yoo-geun first made headlines in March last year when he received a certificate for information-processing, normally given to professional engineers in their 20s or 30s. A KBS-TV program introduced his extraordinary talent in physics last November.
In March this year, he went to an elementary school but after a few days said he didn`t feel suited to the school system. He took a test to obtain a diploma certifying graduation from elementary school, and passed it.
But the Song family became embroiled in legal disputes with the school authorities after they refused to approve the exam result and issue a diploma.
In April, the Song family won the case. Afterwards, on April 5, Yoo-geun passed the middle school-level entrance exam, followed on Aug. 3 by the high school-level entrance exam. In October he was admitted to the Physics Department of Inha University.
Then Science and Technology Minister Oh Myung labeled Yoo-geun as "the first prodigy in science" and promised to offer him scholarships for five years. Oh said the government will provide support for him to be able to experiment at state-run research institutes and study at universities abroad.
Yoo-geun`s father is basically against prodigy schools because, he says, their institutional methods prevent children from growing creatively. Plus, he added, it`s absurd to produce the same number of gifted students every year.
Nationwide there are currently 23 such schools, which accept a set number of students. What about other gifted students who, unfortunately, weren`t allowed to enter? The standards to determine genius become unclear, the senior Song said.
Asked if media attention is burdensome, he said "proper attention" is desirable because proper media attention can enable encouragement to be passed on. Furthermore, it will generate more interest in physics, an area which is declining but fundamental to advancing science.
Song also said he hopes media attention can help Yoo-geun become the Park Se-ri of physics. By winning many LPGA golf championships, Park became a model for young, aspiring golfers. After Park, plenty of female Korean golfers such as Kim Mi-hyun and Grace Park and Michelle Wie have figured prominently on the women`s golf circuit.
"Public attention on Yoo-geun shouldn`t stop here. I`d like to see more kids go along the same path, shoulder to shoulder with Yoo-geun," said Song.
Yoo-geun has received his share of criticism, along with the hype. When he appeared on television with signs of atopic skin reactions on his face, the gossip, although lacking legitimate grounds, was that the rash was caused by severe stress. Critics said his mother should be held responsible for making her kid study excessively.
Educators in the mainstream found fault with his father`s decision to enroll Yoo-geun at Inha University after rejecting offers from top-notch and prestigious national universities like Pohang University of Science and Technology or Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Techonology.
"I believe, above all, the first priority in education is to make every child happy, said Song.
"The single most important thing in education is to find a favorable, encouraging environment for a kid - in other words, let him be," he concluded.

By Hwang Si-young