The god of small things


Nanotechnology researcher Istvan Varga is unique among the more than 6,400 participants in this year’s JET program. While the majority work as assistant English teachers in Japanese public schools, the 34-year-old Hungarian-born electrical engineer spends his days exploring the secrets of magnetism.

In his state-of-the-art lab at the Akita Research Institute for Advanced Technology, for the past 2 1/2 years, Varga has been investigating the properties of high-density perpendicular magnetic recording technology. The results of his research will enable the computers of the future to run faster and more efficiently.

“The field of magnetism is a very specialized world,” says Varga. “We’re dealing with concepts that are very difficult for the lay person to grasp.”

On an average day, Varga is alone in his lab analyzing computer-generated charts and graphs in an attempt to gain insight into a world that is smaller than a micron. He explains: “If you could put a computer hard disk under an electron microscope, what you’d see would be very minute tracks, only 300 nanometers wide [a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter]. These tracks hold bits of information that are aligned like dominoes placed side by side in a longitudinal fashion. What I’m trying to do is find a way to make these bits stand up vertically. By better understanding the magnetic properties of various natural materials, we will eventually be able to do this. This will mean tracks that are more dense, and with reduced surface area, which will enable computers of the future to run even faster.”

Varga is the only non-Japanese member of a team of 25 researchers at the institute. He is neither the first foreign researcher nor is he the first Hungarian to work there. In its 10-year history, another Hungarian researcher, from the Research Institute for Technical Physics and Materials Science in Budapest, as well as two Koreans and a Chinese have worked at the institute. Scientists from the United States, Britain and Turkey have also come on short-term stays.

“This is the only research institute of this kind in Japan,” says deputy chief researcher Jun Ariake. “In fact, there are very few people in the world working in this field of magnetism. Here in Japan, communication concerning our area of study is very limited. It’s important, therefore, for us to develop new perspectives by having regular communication with the outside world and inviting foreign researchers here to Akita,” he says in fluent English.

International exchange is nothing new in the world of science, according to Varga. Since ancient times, scientists have moved freely across borders in their pursuit of knowledge. Before coming to Japan, Varga worked at two of Europe’s leading electronics research institutes in Belgium and Italy as part of his Ph.D. studies in electrical engineering.

“I’m used to moving around,” he says. “I come from Hungary, which basically has a culture of exchange. We are a small country, surrounded by neighbors whose cultures have deeply influenced our own. In fact, I don’t think there is any Hungarian that does not have at least one relative living abroad.”

Cultural and academic exchange between Hungary and Akita has a 10-year history, according to Haruo Kobayashi, a prefectural government official instrumental in developing these ties. Besides Varga, there are at present three Hungarian brain scientists and one surgeon working at research institutes in the prefecture. Researchers from Akita have also visited institutes in Hungary in recent years. Plans are under way for an Akita culture festival to be held in Budapest this summer as well as continued bilateral research exchange programs. It’s not unusual for someone to come up to me on the street in the city of Akita and tell me they’ve been to Hungary,” says Varga.

Since the fall of communism in the Eastern European country in the early 1990s, the situation for many Hungarian scientists has changed dramatically. Government-run research institutions that formerly provided scientists the opportunity to engage in pure research have suffered serious budget cuts in recent years. The demands of a capitalist restructuring of the Hungarian economy have further compounded the pressures for many of the country’s scientists and intellectuals.

For Varga, who decided not to follow his parents into the medical profession and chose a career in science instead, coming to Akita has allowed him to concentrate on his passion for pure scientific research.

Cutting-edge research in recording technology has a long history in the area, thanks to the influence of native-born Kenzo Saito, founder of TDK Corp., one of the pioneers of magnetic tape technology. At present, local companies and government research programs continue to advance the prefecture’s reputation in this field.

While Varga is in Akita as a researcher, he is sponsored by the JET program under the official title of research exchange advisor. “Coming to Japan on the JET program has provided me with an excellent information network and circle of friends,” says Varga. When he is not immersed in the world of nanotechnology, Varga spends much of his free time hiking and skiing in the mountains and pursuing a childhood dream. “As a child I wanted to grow up and become an oceanographer like the great Frenchman, Jacques Cousteau,” says Varga. Perhaps that’s because we don’t have any ocean near Hungary. Here in Akita, I can climb a 2,000-meter mountain in the morning and go snorkeling in the afternoon.”

This summer, Varga will complete his third and final year on the JET program. What are his plans for the future? “I’d like to go back to the Research Institute for Solid State Physics and Optics in Budapest and complete my Ph.D. studies,” he concludes.