The selection of Mr. Hideki Shirakawa, professor emeritus of Tsukuba University, as a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in chemistry is wonderful news. It has cheered up the nation in a difficult moment. We extend him our hearty congratulations. The prize is shared by two American professors, Mr. Alan Heeger and Mr. Alan MacDiarmid.
For better or worse, the 20th century has been a century of science. Fittingly, the Nobel Prizes, awarded for the first time in 1901, have added color and impetus to progress in the natural sciences and other fields. Mr. Shirakawa is the ninth Japanese to win a Nobel Prize and the second, after Mr. Kenichi Fukui, to get a chemistry award.
This year, the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology has been given for brain research, the prize in physics for basic research in information technology, and the prize in chemistry for the discovery and development of a high-polymer plastic that conducts electricity. All are highly promising fields in which advances, including an array of applications, are anticipated in the next century.
As a chemist, Mr. Shirakawa has devoted himself to creating original things. Thus he succeeded in synthesizing polyacetylene, a high polymer that transmits electricity. This opened the way for the development of conductive plastics. The new material has shattered the “common sense” that plastics do not pass electricity and opened up new vistas in the physics of conductive plastics. This has stimulated basic research in solid-state physics, which deals with the basic properties of solid materials, and helped to develop new theories in this field.
The discovery of conductive high polymers has led to the creation of products such as semiconductor high polymers for cell-phone display panels. These high-molecule materials are expected to provide the catalyst for the development of molecular electronics in the 21st century. A major advantage of plastics is that they can be processed freely by changing their components. Someday, conductive plastics will probably replace silicon as a lighter material for electric-circuit elements.
Mr. Shirakawa’s discovery paved the way for the production of these new materials. The interesting thing is that the synthesis of a polyacetylene film, back in the 1960s in a laboratory at the Tokyo Institute of Technology where he was a teaching assistant, was purely accidental, the result of an experimental mistake. Perhaps other researchers would have left it at that. Mr. Shirakawa did not: He analyzed why and how the mistake had occurred — and found the answer.
Japan, which has produced outstanding researchers in conductive materials since the end of World War II, has led the world in this branch of chemistry. But it is also true that the academic community here has not always been receptive to new ideas. Mr. Shirakawa’s invention, for one, gained solid support not in Japan, but in the United States, where he continued his research with the two University of Pennsylvania professors who share the chemistry prize with him. Thus Japan lost the chance to develop his theory on its own turf and “imported” the fruits of his research from the U.S.
The way in which he did his work provides valuable lessons for Japanese researchers. Perhaps the most important lesson is this: Go your own way, no matter what the rest of academia thinks. The key word is originality, or individual initiative. It is highly doubtful whether Japanese science and technology can make a quantum jump just because the government pumps money into “showcase” projects like information-technology and human-genome programs.
So far, six Japanese scientists have received Nobel Prizes, including the late Mr. Hideki Yukawa, who won the prize in physics in 1949 for his neutron theory. They have all had one thing in common: an ability to think independently. That is the basic requirement for research. It must be the driving force behind the progress of science and technology in Japan.
Another thing to remember is that scientific inventions will change human society dramatically in the next century — as they have this past century. Mr. Shirakawa himself refers to conductive plastics as “modern-day alchemy.” The fact that a Nobel Prize has been given for research into this new type of plastics suggests that modern chemistry has a very large role to play now and in the future.
It is said that Japanese students are shunning courses in the natural sciences. Yet people cannot live without the benefits of science. Basic science is essential to combat global problems like environmental destruction, the population explosion and food shortages. The hope is that the Nobel award to Mr. Shirakawa will give a boost to science in this country.
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