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
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.
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
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."