Japan's Nobel Prizes

ll Japan rejoiced when the Swedish Academy of Sciences this month awarded Nobel Prizes to four Japanese scientists. Three of the awards were in physics and the other was awarded to Osamu Shimomura, professor emeritus at Boston University, a naturalized U.S. citizen, for chemistry.

Amid the gloomy headlines dominated by slumping share prices, falling political polling numbers and a succession of heinous crimes, these awards provided Japan with rare good tidings. “AT LAST, A REASON TO CELEBRATE!” trumpeted the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Moreover, the four awards amounted to roughly a third of the total number of Nobel prizes awarded to Japanese in the sciences since the first winner (in physics), Hideki Yukawa in 1949. All of which goes a long way to dispelling the long-standing notion that while Japanese may be geniuses when it comes to adapting technology, they are dunces when it comes to original research.

But halfway around the world the award news was met with consternation. In an eerie replay of The Prize, a 1960s movie thriller starring the late Paul Newman, Italian physicists are complaining that their colleague, Nicola Cabbibo, was “robbed of this year’s Nobel Prize” by two of the Japanese scientists, according to Italian newspapers.

At issue is the half of the prize for physics that was shared by Makoto Kobayashi, a professor emeritus at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba, and Toshihide Masukawa, a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University. The other half was won by Yoichiro Nambu, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and is not controversial.

Kobayashi and Masukawa received their awards for “their discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of three families of quarks in nature.” The Italian physicists claim that Cabibbo, 73, a professor at the University of Rome, laid the foundations that led to the discoveries that the Japanese researchers actually published in 1973.

According to the Italian newspapers, the physicists maintain that the discoveries attributed to the two Japanese researchers were based on an earlier finding in 1963 by Cabibbo. In scientific circles it is often described as the “Cabibbo-Kobayashi-Masukawa matrix.”

Under Swedish Academy rules, the physics prize can be share by no more than three laureates at a time, and the other prize half of the physics award went to Nambu. His award was described by the Academy as being “for the discovery of the mechanism for the spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics.”

The angry response has come from the Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics and researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Roberto Petronzio, the institute’s president was quoted in La Repubblica as saying that the snubbing of Cabibbo “fills me with bitterness.” It is not known if either organization will formally protest to the Swedish Academy. Cabibbo has not commented on the situation.

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The controversy over the Italian scientist, however, could not dim the pride that many Japanese had in their sweeping of the science awards this year. Every time October rolls around and the Swedish Academy announces the latest batch of scientific immortals without naming a Japanese, it ignites more soul-searching about why the Japanese, despite spending billions on R&D, are not more creative.

If they handed out Nobel prizes for perfecting the home video recorder, the personal stereo or just-in-time production management techniques, Japan would dominate the awards. In fact, the awards in the sciences – physics, chemistry and medicine – recognize original research, not the applied sciences.

That could hardly be said for this year’s awards which honor work so esoteric that few but professionals – and only a few of those -- can grasp the import. The same was true Shimamoru’s prize in chemistry – shared with two American researchers – for the discovery of green fluorescent protein in a type of jelly fish .”which glows [correct, not grows] in the sea” It supposedly has important implications for the development of nerve cells in the brain.

“We rejoice at the fact that this year’s three Nobel physics laureates are from the most basic fields of science, wrote the Asahi Shimbun. “ Perspective and patience are indispensible to scientists. This is the message that rings loud and clear from the successes of this year’s three Nobel physics laureates.”

Japanese scientists have now won 13 Nobel prizes in the sciences (the three other Japanese laureates are former Prime Minister Eisako Sato (peace, 1974), Yasunari Kawabata (literature, 1968) and Kenzaburo Oe (literature, 1994). In its annual white paper on science and technology, the Japanese government has set a numerical target to produce 30 Nobel Laureates in the first half of the century.

It could be said that Japan doesn’t reap the recognition it deserves for the amount of money it lavishes on research and development. In 2006 Japan spent about $139 billion on basic R&D, compared with $338 billion by the US and $233 billion by the European Community. Yet Europe and America have produced literally hundreds of prize winners in the past century.

In modern times Asian nations have emerged from colonialism and gone on to many successes. But one area where they have lagged is in science. The number of Asians who have received the Nobel Prize in any of the sciences is minuscule – four for China, four for India and one for Taiwan. Other prizes have been in fields of literature and peace.

When it was revealed a couple years ago that a South Korean scientist named Hwang Won Suk at Seoul National University appeared to have made an historic breakthrough in stem cell research, it seemed to most Koreans, and perhaps to Asians in general, that they had finally made it. Hwang became a rock star.

The South Korean government, which had plowed millions into Hwang’s research to help push the country into the forefront of biotechnology admitted to being crushingly disappointed when Hwang turned out to be a fraud. It pledged to continue the national support “so not to frustrate people’s hopes”.

In this case the “hopes” may not, as one might think, have been about finding cures for hard-to-treat ailments, like diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease. Most Koreans read the words somewhat differently. They hoped that South Korea can still someday become a world leader in a scientific field.