Nobel Laureate: View Science Through Centuries - Long Lens

Nobel laureate: View science through centuries-long lensIn referring to science in his speech in Hiroshima, U.S. President Barack Obama said that at the same time as bringing benefits, scientific discoveries “can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.” Since the end of World War II, Japan has attached great importance to academic freedom, steering clear of partnerships between academia and industry as well as research into security. A review of this approach is now under way. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Toshihide Masukawa, who has spent many years considering the relationship between science and society, shared his thoughts on the subject in an interview with Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Keiko Chino.

Like a puzzle

Science and technology are neutral. They make no distinctions between war and peace. They can be used both as weapons and for the well-being of the human race. It all depends on the intentions of those using them. Therefore, researchers need to understand how their research could be used.

However, in recent years, researchers have become less conscious of this. Some reasons behind this are the increasing specialization and compartmentalization of research, making it harder to discern the overall picture, and the decrease in the number of people who have experienced war.

The changing nature of the times is also significant. The Japanese government is now trying to put research results to use to reinvigorate the economy and society. In other words, the aim is innovation. The government is promoting partnerships between universities and companies, and is also trying to move ahead with research into what is called “dual use” technology, which has potential applications in both the military and civilian spheres.

[The Science Council of Japan, also known as the “parliament of scholars,” issued statements in 1950 and again in 1967 saying that scientific research would not be carried out for the purpose of war or other military reasons. Taking into account the changing situation, they began to review this standpoint in June.]

From a researcher’s point of view, military research is interesting. It’s like solving a puzzle. For example, the armor plating of a tank is thick and sturdy. How could it be pierced? There are various ways of doing this. Researchers think of the most efficient way to penetrate the armor, bring the idea to fruition, and experience a sense of achievement.

Last year, the Defense Ministry began funding dual-use research at universities. This is still on a small scale, and is being carried out very carefully. The concern is that the two sides will gradually become closer, and that researchers will be drawn into weapons research.

However, it is difficult to deal with dual-use technology. If it were completely banned, this would prevent the appearance of such innovations as popular housecleaning robots that incorporate U.S. military robotic technology. The Japanese economy would stagnate. This is a dilemma that science and technology currently faces.

Nagoya air raids

When I was 5 years old, I experienced the Nagoya air raids. An incendiary device smashed through the roof of my house and rolled to a stop right in front of me. It failed to explode. Although this is nothing compared to the experiences of other victims, the memory of it still frightens me.

I was prompted to study physics at university by a newspaper article that I read as a high school student. The article said Shoichi Sakata, a professor at Nagoya University, had made an important discovery in particle physics. When I read this, I was very excited. Exceptional science was being carried out right there in Nagoya, I thought. I wanted to become part of the team.

I passed the entrance examination, and studied under Prof. Sakata. My studies were incredibly exciting. After it lost the war, Japan rose from the ruins. Since we did not have any natural resources, our future lay in science and technology. I truly believed this.

However, Prof. Sakata told me, “Unless you’re able to think about societal issues, too, you can never become a full-fledged researcher.”

I read various books and discussed the issues with others. It was a time of conflict over the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty before its revision in 1960.

[The conflict broke out over revisions to the treaty, which had originally been signed in 1951. People from many walks of life, including politicians and students, were involved.]

I read Karl Marx’s “Capital” and Georg Hegel’s “Elements of the Philosophy of Right,” and thought about politics and society. I also avidly read newspapers. I still subscribe to two newspapers.

Reading so widely and indiscriminately, I learned something: History and economics also have a law of their own. If we zoom out and look at what happened in terms of centuries, these become clear.

Energy problems

I think that 200 years from now, war will become extinct.

Until the 19th century, wars were started by kings and were conflicts over territory. In the 20th century, nationalism came to the fore, and wars were fought between nations. Since the end of World War II, wars have taken place between ethnic groups or religions. But in another 100 years, we should see moves to stop such pointless conflicts.

However, there is always a backlash in history. For example, after the French Revolution, there was a return to the monarchy from a republican system. Therefore, I’m including a safety factor and saying “200 years.”

The issue we currently need to consider from this long-term perspective is that of energy and nuclear power. Three hundred years from now, there will be no underground resources left on this planet. The appearance of shale oil and other new substances has extended this period for a little longer, but for less than 100 years.

Even with technological advances, there is no single energy source that is adequate by itself. Without nuclear power, there is no way we can survive for another 300 or 400 years. Those who oppose nuclear power call me crazy. However, I’m thinking about how we can come to terms with reality.

Nevertheless, nuclear power production has been far too optimistic. Extravagant claims have been made about safety. What is important is to inform people about the degree of danger. People should be told that a certain amount of money has been spent on certain equipment as a safety measure, but that this does not make it foolproof.

Fortunately, there is still some time until underground resources are exhausted. We should use this time to carry out research into safer next-generation nuclear power. Japan should not tackle this alone; it should be an international project. What is worrisome is that even research into nuclear power may cease.

This is the age of information technology, but Japan needs to base itself on manufacturing rooted in science and technology. There are people who say our nation should be based on the financial sector. However, I think it somewhat strange making money from activities that have no tangible component to them, such as jacking up prices and making money by buying on margin.

I’m now in my late 70s, but I’m continuing my research. I’m working on a major project with no easy answer.

The most interesting stage of my work is right at the beginning. At that moment, I think that I might perhaps be a genius. But when it comes to writing a paper, I become disheartened and always feel that what I have written is rubbish — again. The same may happen with the research that I’m working on now. It’ll be lucky if I can come up with some kind of result.