JSPS Quarterly
No.26 2008 Winter Topics
Dr. Makoto Kobayashi, Executive Director of JSPS, Wins 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics

Message from JSPS President Prof. Motoyuki Ono

Prof. Ono and Dr. Kobayashi
Prof. Ono and Dr. Kobayashi

On behalf of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), I wish to extend our hearty congratulations to this year's Japan-born researchers who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in recognition of their breakthrough research achievements: Dr. Yoichiro Nambu, Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago; Dr. Makoto Kobayashi, Executive Director, JSPS; and Dr. Toshihide Maskawa, Professor, Kyoto Sangyo University, who each received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Dr. Osamu Shimomura, Professor Emeritus, Boston University, who won the Prize in Chemistry.

It has been six years since Japanese researchers last received a Nobel Prize in fields of science: with Dr. Masatoshi Koshiba, Honorary Professor Emeritus, the University of Tokyo, having won it in Physics in 2002 and Mr. Koichi Tanaka, Fellow of Shimadzu Corp., having won it the same year in Chemistry. The wonderful success of this year's four laureates engenders an uplifted spirit of confidence and aspiration among the Japanese people.

In the field of physics, Dr. Nambu discovered the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics while Drs. Kobayashi and Maskawa discovered the origin of the broken symmetry that predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature. These highly appraised achievements have set leapfrog milestones in the advancement of particle physics. In chemistry, Dr. Shimomura was recognized for his discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), now used to illuminate cell development and other microscopic processes in living organisms.

Giving worldwide recognition to the accomplishments of Japanese scientists, this year's awards testify to the high level of Japan's research, in which our nation as a whole can take great pride.

Supporting research driven by the intellectual curiosity and the free ideas of researchers across a wide spectrum of basic research fields, JSPS seeks to advance scientific research in Japan while using the results achieved to contribute to human wellbeing by expanding the body of knowledge assets shared among the world's peoples.

Interview with Dr. Makoto Kobayashi, JSPS Executive Director, on His View of Basic Research in Japan and Other Topics

Congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize in Physics. What did you think when you were told that you had won the Prize?

I was taken by complete surprise.

You have been awarded the Nobel Prize for your theory published in 1973 under the title "CP-Violation in the Renormalizable Theory of Weak Interaction." At that time, your theory of CP violation, which broke the symmetrical law of physics, must have been a rather bold prediction. How sure were you that your hypothesis was correct?

It had already been shown that four quarks are not enough to explain CP violation asymmetry, so that there had to be some new particles, we were quite confident. That there are six quarks, however, we were not that confident:Among the several logical possibilities, we found it to be the most interesting.

I imagine that the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) and other Japanese research institutions must have played a significant role in experimentally proving the Kobayashi-Maskawa Theory.

Many research institutions around the world have conducted experiments to prove the theory of broken CP symmetry. What I think deserves special mention are the experiments carried out by KEK researchers using the B-factory accelerator. By producing the world's highest beam luminosity, they were able to actually observe CP violation taking place in B-meson decays.

I believe that this year's Nobel Prizes in Physics testify once again to the importance of basic research. What's your feeling about this?

Even when successful, basic research often does not find immediate applications. Without it, however, it is not possible for science and technology to move forward. Basic research should be viewed from a long-term span, not judged based on its application value. Who knows what it is that inspires new ideas and concepts. A perception that we don't know from whence they come is essential to the pursuit of basic research.

What do you think of the current state of basic research in Japan? What could be done to advance it in the future?

In both universities and research institutes, there is a lack of basic research funding. Moreover, I feel that the mechanisms in place to select and implement good projects are not adequately functional. This is true even with large-scale projects to advance basic research, such as those carried out in the field of high energy physics. It will be necessary to improve these mechanisms.

You were 29 years old when you published your paper on CP violation asymmetry. I believe it is around age 30 when researchers are most creative. What sort of support could be most helpful to such young researchers? What do you think of the treatment they currently receive?

The number of postdoctoral researchers has been increasing; however, it is difficult for them to find positions. They are being thrashed about by the winds of overly strident competition: There is too much emphasis being placed on achieving short-term results. Of course, a certain degree of competition is necessary; however, an environment is also needed in which researchers can pursue their work at a comfortable pace. To accomplish this, the selection rate under young-researcher-support programs will need to be raised.

There's a worsening trend for younger generations of Japanese, especially junior and senior high school students, to shy away from studying math and science. What might be done to reverse this tendency?

I know what I'd like to see done, but I don't know how realistic it is to expect that it will. That is when teaching math and science, to instill in students a perception that increasing their knowledge can in itself be fun while allowing them to enjoy with others a wider view of the world. Rather than over-focusing on students answering questions based on laws of science and mathematics, what's needed is to arouse their interest in making new discoveries.

From your research on the origin of the universe, I feel a strong sense of passion. Do you consider yourself to be a romantic?

No, not a romantic, but a realist. Being able to make liberal use of my imagination in devising theories is fun, but what I really enjoy most is the process of proving those theories by bouncing them against reality.

As my last question, what changes have you experienced as a result of winning the Nobel Prize?

Well, for one thing I'm swamped with requests to give lectures and speeches. Above all else, receiving the Prize has made me very busy.

Dr. Makoto Kobayashi's Profile

JSPS executive director Dr. Makoto Kobayashi
JSPS executive director Dr. Makoto Kobayashi
Date of Birth: 7 April 1944
Nationality: Japanese
Education: B.S., Nagoya University, 1967
Ph.D., Nagoya University, 1972
Field of Specialization: Particle Theory
2007-present Executive Director, JSPS
2006-present IIAS (International Institute for Advanced Studies) Fellow
2006-present Professor Emeritus, KEK (High Energy Accelerator Research Organization)
2004-2006 Trustee, KEK
2003-2006 Director of Institute of Particle and Nuclear Studies, KEK
1989-2003 Head of Physics Division II, KEK
1985-2003 Professor, KEK
1979-1985 Associate Professor, KEK
1972-1979 Research Associate, Kyoto University
2007 EPS High Energy and Particle Physics Prize
2001 Person of Cultural Merit
1995 Chunichi Cultural Prize
1995 Asahi Prize
1985 The Japan Academy Prize
1985 J. J. Sakurai Prize (American Physical Society)
1979 Nishina Memorial Prize

For a comprehensive sketch of Dr. Kobayashi's history and his scientific achievements, please see the KEK news release on the following website: http://www.kek.jp/intra-e/press/2008/NobelKobayashi.html

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JSPS Quarterly No.26 2008