‘Rocker’ physicist knows his neutrinos

Kyodo

Visitors to a world-leading accelerator science research laboratory should not be surprised if they see a rock singer engaging in studies on neutrinos.

“I’m even mistaken for a young scaffolding worker,” laughed Sho Tada, 43, of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.

People who meet Tada for the first time never recognize him as an assistant professor of physics and a neutrino oscillation researcher at the organization, called KEK for the abbreviation of its Japanese name, because he usually wears a military camouflage outfit and has long, bleached blond hair.

Tada works at the neutrino plant, which is built 18 meters above and 19 meters below the ground and is part of the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex, or J-PARC, a high-intensity proton accelerator facility in the village of Tokai in Ibaraki Prefecture.

His job is to send neutrino beams over a distance of 295 km to an underground experimental facility in the town of Kamioka in Hida, Gifu Prefecture, where studies are being undertaken to explore neutrinos, subatomic particles that pass through normal matter unimpeded.

Besides working at the plant, he gives lectures and speeches throughout Japan.

His easy-to-understand speaking style and unusual appearance as a scientist have won him many admirers, especially young people. Enthusiastic fans see him as their prince and call him “Sho-sama” by adding the honorific expression.

In late October, Tada gave a presentation to some 100 students at Kawagoe Girls’ Senior High School in Saitama Prefecture, with topics ranging from Einstein to cosmism.

He wore a black jacket over a gold tie and blue shirt and black enamel trousers, which he called his “most decent” set of clothes.

On the Higgs boson, the discovery of which led to the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics for two scientists, Tada said the particles collect around subatomic particles to give them mass and slow their speed, an explanation he used in his radio program titled “Particle physics even gals can understand.”

Tada “spoke in a very comprehensive way and I enjoyed it,” a student said after the lecture. “I could also have an image of the abstract universe.”

Earlier in October, Tada appeared before a gathering at a small cafe in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza shopping district, speaking about particle physics before some 30 people. Attending the meeting were several young women. He frequently aroused laughter from the audience and was surrounded by many listeners for further discussion after the lecture.

Obsessively interested in military affairs since he was a child, his speech subjects are not limited to science, as also in October, Tada spoke about combat vehicles in various countries. That lecture meeting was held in the Odaiba shopping and entertainment district in Tokyo Bay. “I’m more familiar with military affairs than particle physics,” he said jokingly.

After working for 10 years in a Kyoto University study program to find dark matter said to exist in abundance in the universe, he went to KEK, where he was involved in construction of the neutrino plant that began in 2004.

Given the construction site on a desertlike beach facing the Pacific Ocean, Tada bought camouflage fatigues worn by a U.S. soldier during the Iraq war. He liked it because the fabric was strong and dried quickly after washing.

As researchers at KEK are allowed to wear whatever they like when they carry out experiments, Tada has since continued to wear his camouflage outfits.

He dyed his hair red when he was a Kyoto University student but turned it ash-blond in 1999, bleaching it by himself because he did not like the reddish tint done by a hairdresser.

At KEK, Tada is a devoted researcher in charge of producing neutrinos in bulk by letting proton beams hit a target and sending them to the Kamioka facility. Tada wakes up at 5 a.m. every day at his home in Tsukuba and drives to the neutrino plant.

While in the vanguard of experiments to probe neutrinos, Tada is required to pay maximum attention to his work as it involves radioactive rays. For necessary remote control and shutoff of rays, he designed a system himself.

“Work and hobbies are different,” Tada often says. “You have lots of odd jobs to do for work. You mustn’t choose your work based exclusively on whether you like it or not.”

Experiments undertaken by him at the neutrino plant were suspended for a year as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. They have been suspended again since May due to a leakage of radioactive substances in a separate experimental ward in J-PARC.

“We’ll regain local trust in us by placing priority on safety,” Tada said, while replacing equipment, with an eye toward resuming his experiments next year.