A day after winning the Nobel Prize in physics, Takaaki Kajita said he felt like he was walking on air as he expressed appreciation to his mentors and colleagues who he says were instrumental in his research.
“I calmed down a bit, and now have mixed feelings as I am wondering if this really could have happened,” the 56-year-old University of Tokyo professor said Wednesday. “But I’m happy, of course.”
Looking back on his career as a researcher, he said he was “extremely and unusually blessed” to have had good people around him.
Kajita shared the award with Canadian Professor Emeritus Arthur McDonald, 72, from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, for discovering neutrino oscillations, which showed that tiny particles have mass. With Tuesday’s announcement, he became the 24th Nobel Prize winner from Japan, following Satoshi Omura, who joined the list Monday for his work in medicine.
At a news conference Tuesday night at the University of Tokyo, Kajita repeatedly expressed his appreciation to Masatoshi Koshiba, the 89-year-old professor emeritus from the university and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in physics who supervised Kajita when he was a graduate student. He also gave credit to Yoji Totsuka, the late former director of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, who used to direct his research.
“I believe finding mass in neutrinos is truly the great achievement of Dr. Totsuka,” Kajita said, paying respect to the physicist who died in 2008. “Research on neutrinos is not an individual affair. … It needs a large team of hundreds of people working together toward a goal.
“Research on neutrinos is not something that will become useful anytime soon. … I’d say it is a field that will expand the intellectual horizons of mankind (in the future),”he added. “I am pleased that such pure science received attention.”
News of the second Japanese to win a Nobel Prize in as many days was enthusiastically received back home, especially among researchers at the University of Tokyo.
“I was filled with joy after hearing the news about the head of our neighboring laboratory,” said Masataka Watanabe, a 23-year-old graduate student in physics at the university. “Winning a Nobel Prize is an extremely difficult task, so it’s not a realistic goal when conducting research. But his achievement shows that through hard work it’s possible.”
A Saitama Prefecture native, Kajita graduated from Saitama University with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1981. Omura, who won the medicine prize the previous day, received a bachelor’s degree from Yamanashi University in the prefecture of the same name.
A senior education ministry official said that studying at those regional universities, both of which are national institutions, may have provided research environments that freed them from the pressures of having to show immediate results.
Still, academia in Japan in recent years has been struggling; operational subsidies provided by the government to national universities have been cut by about ¥130 billion over the past decade. Many young researchers are now struggle to find permanent positions as many academic job offers are for fixed-term employment.
And recently, the University of Tokyo dropped to No. 43 in the 2015 Times Higher Education World University Rankings from No. 23 the previous year, lagging behind National University of Singapore, ranked at No. 26, and Peking University at No. 42. Kyoto University also fell dramatically from No. 59 in 2014 to No. 88.
“I hope the news (about Japanese Nobel Prize winners) becomes a trigger for more funding for researchers by bringing more public attention to research,” said Watanabe, the graduate student.
Information from Kyodo added
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