The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which is responsible for awarding the Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry, probably said it best when it described this year’s physics laureates as having “used [the] very smallest components of the universe to increase our understanding of the very largest, the sun, stars, galaxies and supernovae.”
The Academy was referring to cosmic neutrinos, the tiny, invisible, unreactive particles that make up sunshine and the light from other stars — the arcane research field of two of the winners. But in defining the scope of the work’s importance, it might as well have been talking about the cosmos-size elation of the Japanese scientific community when it heard that not one, but two of its members had been accorded science’s highest honor this week. On Tuesday it was announced that Dr. Masatoshi Koshiba, emeritus professor at Tokyo University, was one of the three physics Nobel laureates for 2002; the very next day, Mr. Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corp. in Kyoto was one of the three named as this year’s chemistry laureates.
Taking their cue from the physicists, perhaps, Japanese commentators immediately labeled news of the double victory “sunshine among the clouds,” a ray of light in a country too long shadowed by economic gloom that, if anything, has only darkened in recent days. For once, the cliche seemed forgivable.
There was, naturally, pride and satisfaction in the individual achievements of both men. Of the two, Dr. Koshiba’s work was better known and his win less unexpected. At 76, he had long been recognized for his groundbreaking work building instruments sensitive enough to measure the maddeningly elusive neutrinos. At his world-famous Kamiokande facility, housed deep in a zinc mine in Gifu Prefecture, and at its successor, Super Kamiokande, Dr. Koshiba confirmed hypotheses made earlier by Dr. Raymond Davis, a University of Pennsylvania professor who shared half this year’s $1 million prize with him. On Wednesday, a U.S. physicist described Dr. Koshiba as “responsible for putting Japan on the map in a big way.”
Mr. Tanaka’s accolade came as more of a surprise. Not only was he, at age 43, the youngest Nobel laureate in chemistry since 1967, but he won for breakthrough work done in the late 1980s, when he was barely out of his twenties. He was also the first Japanese corporate researcher to win a Nobel Prize.
Some Japanese academics admitted this week that they had never heard of him, and he himself appeared humbled by and unprepared for the win, apologizing for having to attend the news conference in his work uniform. Yet as the Academy citation makes clear, the research for which Mr. Tanaka has been honored, along with Dr. John B. Fenn of Virginia Commonwealth University and Dr. Kurt Wuethrich of Switzerland, has already revolutionized the development of new drugs and holds promise for earlier diagnosis of some cancers.
Still, the sunny mood here this week was not just a response to personal achievement. It reflected a feeling that these two honors somehow represent — or confirm — a national achievement as well. Nobel prizes are by no means the only measure of excellence in a particular field, but their symbolism as a measure of international recognition of excellence is unmatched. Counting the chemistry prizes awarded to Dr. Ryoji Noyori and Dr. Hideki Shirakawa in 2000 and 2001, Japan has now garnered four Nobels in three years. There is thus reason to believe that the country may yet fulfill the government’s aim, announced in 2000, of winning 30 Nobel Prizes within 50 years — an aim that once seemed as elusive as cosmic neutrinos.
This is not to say that all is sunny in the fields of Japanese scientific research or even higher education. The familiar problems remain — in particular, a failure to encourage individual initiative or independent thinking. Dr. Koshiba himself drew attention to the importance of encouraging, or at least tolerating, maverick thinking in the sciences when he publicized his mediocre university grades Wednesday.
However, this is an occasion for looking on the bright side. One recent Nobel prize, or even two, could be an anomaly, a product of random individual genius. As Dr. Fenn said on being told of his win earlier this week, “It’s just like being struck by lightning, you know; the odds are so infinitesimal that you never really think you have a chance.” That is why four wins in three years suggests real, systemic depth: The chances are against it. It is no longer fanciful to say that Japanese science is competitive on the global playing field.
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