Left: Koichi Tanaka (Shimadzu Corporation); Right: Masatoshi Koshiba (University of Tokyo, School of Science)

Japanese Win Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Physics
October 31, 2002

The 2002 Nobel Prize for physics will be shared by Masatoshi Koshiba, 76, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, and two other scientists. The Nobel Prize for chemistry, meanwhile, will go to Koichi Tanaka, 43, a researcher at Shimadzu Corp., a maker of precision instruments. Tanaka, who is an assistant manager at Shimadzu's Life Science Laboratory, will also share the award with two others. This is the first time that two Japanese have ever received Nobel Prizes in the same year, and it marks the third year in a row that a Japanese has received the Nobel Prize for chemistry, another first. Japan has now had a total of 12 Nobel laureates, and the awards this time have demonstrated to the world the high level of research taking place in Japan. The Nobel Prizes will be formally presented on December 12 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Koshiba Awarded Prize for Work on Neutrinos
Koshiba will share the prize for physics with Raymond Davis Jr., 87, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, and Riccardo Giacconi, 71, president of Associated Universities Inc. in the United States.

Koshiba made use of a device for observing subatomic particles constructed by the University of Tokyo's Institute for Cosmic Ray Research in Kamioka, Gifu Prefecture. The device was a tank called "Kamiokande" that held 3,000 tons of water 1,000 meters below ground and was equipped with precise sensors. Koshiba took the lead in planning the construction and created a system for observing neutrinos. Neutrinos are subatomic particles, and they are released throughout the universe in great quantities when a dying star goes supernova and explodes. Capturing neutrinos would allow scientists to "peer" inside stars and obtain information about their development. Neutrinos, however, do not normally interact with matter, and they can pass all the way through the Earth, making detection difficult.

In 1987, four years after Kamiokande was completed, Koshiba and his team succeeded in observing 12 neutrinos - the first time that neutrinos from space were ever clearly observed - for a total of 13 seconds. The neutrinos came from a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, located 160,000 light years from Earth, and the team was able to analyze a mysterious supernova in detail. The success of this project was the result of cooperation between the government, industry, and academia. The Ministry of Education (now the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology) provided funding; an electronics maker in Hamamatsu City manufactured sensors; and the University of Tokyo led the research.

Super Kamiokande
The detector wall and top of the Super Kamiokande, equipped with about 9,000 PMTs. (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, University of Tokyo)

The group from the University of Tokyo that took up where Koshiba left off constructed an even bigger observation device called "Super Kamiokande." Using this new device, in 1998 the team made the startling discovery that neutrinos - which were thought to have zero mass - actually do have a slight amount of mass, a discovery that has rewritten much of modern particle physics.

Last-Place Student Becomes Top Scientist
Koshiba was born in Aichi Prefecture in 1926. He graduated from the University of Tokyo's physics department in 1951 and went to the United States, where he received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1955. He then worked as a professor at the University of Tokyo until he retired in 1987. In 1997 he was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit.

In his youth, Koshiba dreamed of becoming a soldier or a musician. In middle school, he had been studying in preparation for entering a military school when he was struck with polio one month before the entrance examination. He lost movement in his right arm as a result of the disease, and he gave up on his dreams. His first encounter with physics was when his middle-school teacher brought him one of Einstein's books, The Evolution of Physics, while Koshiba was ill.

Behind Koshiba's calm demeanor lurks a very strict professor; he would often yell at his students in the laboratory. He had no patience for papers that were incomplete, and many of his students were afraid of him. Koshiba's approach was to train his students hard to forge them into the best possible researchers.

This spring Koshiba was invited to speak at the University of Tokyo's graduation ceremony. He began by saying, "I graduated last in my class in the physics department," and his grades were displayed on a large screen. He continued, "What you do in life depends on your active efforts after graduation. This is what I wanted to tell you." Koshiba's research followed this pattern. After winning the Nobel Prize, he said, "My next dream is for one of my students to win it."

Tanaka Develops Method for Analyzing Proteins
Receiving the Nobel Prize for chemistry along with Tanaka were John B. Fenn, 85, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Kurt Wüthrich, 64, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. All three scientists shared the award for developing powerful new methods of studying and analyzing proteins and other biological macromolecules.

Analyzing the three-dimensional structure and mass of proteins is essential to unlocking the mystery of life. It had been hard to do so in detail, however, using existing methods. In response to this problem, Tanaka developed his own method in 1987, called the soft laser desorption technique. Proteins are hit with light from a laser and ionized. The mass of the molecules can then be determined easily and accurately by measuring the time and distance they fly within a special analyzer. This is now the most sensitive and precise way of analyzing biological macromolecules in the world.

This development has made it possible to map the complex three-dimensional structure of proteins and analyze their mass, which provides a better understand the processes of life, such as the functions of proteins within cells. In addition to the rapid development of new medicines, its use is spreading to food inspections, early detection of breast and prostate cancer, and other areas.

Unknown Corporate Researcher Takes Top Prize
Tanaka was born in Toyama City in 1959. He graduated from Tohoku University in 1983 with a degree in engineering and joined Shimadzu Corp. that same year. After being dispatched to a British firm, Tanaka returned to Shimadzu and is now an assistant manager in that company's analytical and measuring instruments division.

During his college years, Tanaka was an ordinary student. He repeated a year in school and was unsuccessful when applying at Sony Corp. - his first choice during his job hunt. Tanaka went from being an unknown corporate researcher to one of the most talked-about scientists in the world overnight, and his ascension demonstrates the high level of work being conducted in Japanese corporate research institutes. Of all the Japanese Nobel laureates to date, Tanaka is the first born after the end of World War II. He is also the second youngest. He followed a different path than the other laureates who have won prizes for science in that he is not a professor and does not have a PhD.

When the congratulatory telephone call informing him that he had won the Nobel Prize came, Tanaka was astonished. Attending a press conference with over 200 reporters at his company that evening, Tanaka was still wearing his work uniform. He said, "I couldn't believe my ears; I thought it was a joke. I still can't believe it."

The research that won Tanaka the Nobel Prize took place when he was 28 and had its beginnings in a fortuitous mistake. He was trying to measure the mass of proteins with a laser, but the proteins would scatter when hit directly with the laser. To combat this problem, he added a kind of material to provide a cushion that he called "the matrix." He had originally intended to use cobalt and glycerin separately, but they were accidentally mixed. He realized the mistake but thought it would be a waste not to continue. To his surprise, the sample did not break down, and he was able to accurately measure the protein's mass.

After winning the Nobel Prize Tanaka stated, "I have about 20 years left of research in me. I want to forget that I've won this prize and continue to do the things I like the way I have up to now. I hope to continue research and development that will benefit my company and society as a whole."

Japanese Nobel Laureates
1949    Hideki Yukawa    Physics
1965    Shin'ichiro Tomonaga    Physics
1968    Yasunari Kawabata    Literature
1973    Reona Esaki    Physics
1974    Eisaku Sato    Peace
1981    Ken'ichi Fukui    Chemistry
1987    Susumu Tonegawa    Physiology
1994    Kenzaburo Oe    Literature
2000    Hideki Shirakawa    Chemistry
2001    Ryoji Noyori    Chemistry
2002    Masatoshi Koshiba    Physics
2002    Koichi Tanaka    Chemistry

Copyright (c) 2002 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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