Special Interview with Nobel Laureate on Science for the New Century (1)

= Index =
Nobel Prize

Kyoto's Contribution to Scientific Achievements

What is Creativity?

Developing Talent

Turning Failure into Success

Intellectual Curiosity

What is progress?

Declining Academic Standards

The Propagation of Knowledge

Advice to the Younger Generation
The Kyoto Shimbun 2004/01/05

Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize winner Koichi Tanaka says "It is pure luck that Japanese won Nobel Prizes three years in a row."
"Winning the Nobel Prize is the Biblical "strait gate"; people aren't aware of how difficult it is", says Tokindo Okada, Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University.


Since entering the 21st century, science technology, including life sciences, has been progressing even more rapidly. Meanwhile, serious problems, including the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, have also occurred. The Kyoto Shimbun Newspaper hosted an interview to discuss what science should be like in the new century.

Koichi Tanaka: Winner of the Nobel Prize in Science and fellow of Shimadzu Corporation
Tokindo Okada: Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University, acknowledged authority in biology
Toshihiro Oko of the Kyoto Shimbun Newspaper's City News Department

Interviewer: Unfortunately, no Japanese won the Nobel Prize last year, dashing the hope for four-consecutive-year wins by Japanese. Mr. Tanaka, you said that we needn't feel gloomy about this.

Tanaka: Well, I don't remember exactly what I said when I got the news. But I don't think we should be disappointed. I would say it was just pure luck that Japanese won Nobel Prizes three years in a row. So, we are just overambitious if we think that Japanese can win the prize this year, too. Just think of it. The population in Japan is only one fiftieth of the world population, and then, we have won the prizes three years in a row. This is just amazing.

Okada: People do not recognize how tough it is to win the Nobel Prize. Media may think of it as just one out of 50 candidates being awarded the prize, but that's not true. It's really the Biblical "strait gate". Mr. Tanaka is truly outstanding. He got one.

Tanaka: Not really, I won the prize by sheer luck. Last year, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to discoveries concerning MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and the Chemistry Prize went to discoveries concerning water channels and ion channels (that let various substances into cell membranes). When you look at the Nobel Foundation's Web site, you can find the reasons why these studies were awarded. At the end of the explanation, about three dozen references are listed and you can easily spot Japanese names among them. So, even if no Japanese were awarded this time, it does not mean that science technology in Japan has suddenly lost its competitive edge.

Interviewer: Concerning water channels in the Chemistry prize, the name of Professor Yoshinori Fujiyoshi, Kyoto University Department of Biophysics Faculty of Science, appears several times and that reminds me that Japan's contribution is remarkable.

Tanaka: Yes, indeed. Those experts' contributions made it possible that specialists in each field could win the prize. Without their efforts, the technologies could have not reached the stage where people around the world enjoy their benefits, and thus could not have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Okada: But there are still some problems with the Noble Prize itself. For example, it does not cover the once-called "natural history", such as biology, geology and mineralogy. Considering that these have a direct bearing on nature, it is a pity that they are not covered. Climatology is not either, though global warming has been an issue for some time now.

Tanaka: The Nobel Prize is not the Absolute. Even though it is criticized one way or another, it's still considered one of the most prominent prizes. That is simply because it has history of about 100 years. In fact, I think there should be other ways to recognize excellent scientific achievements. For example, the Inamori Foundation's Kyoto Prizes honor remarkable achievements in both artistic and scientific fields. I was lucky that I was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Prize for work that had been unnoticed for a long time. There should be some specialized prizes for such undervalued studies or for the teamwork that the Japanese are good at.

(translated by Galileo, Inc.)