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Editor's note: This story was originally posted in the December 1998 issue, and has been reposted to highlight the long intertwined history of the Nobel Prizes and Scientific American.
“The last seminar, given at a gorgeous house left unburned near Riken, was dedicated to [electron] shower theories.... It was difficult to continue the seminars, because Minakawa’s house was burnt in April and the laboratory was badly destroyed in May. The laboratory moved to a village near Komoro in July; four physics students including myself lived there. Tatuoki Miyazima also moved to the same village, and we continued our studies there towards the end of 1945.”
—Satio Hayakawa, astrophysicist
Between 1935 and 1955 a handful of Japanese men turned their minds to the unsolved problems of theoretical physics. They taught themselves quantum mechanics, constructed the quantum theory of electromagnetism and postulated the existence of new particles. Much of the time their lives were in turmoil, their homes demolished and their bellies empty. But the worst of times for the scientists was the best of times for the science. After the war, as a numbed Japan surveyed the devastation, its physicists brought home two Nobel Prizes.
Their achievements were all the more remarkable in a society that had encountered the methods of science only decades earlier. In 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry’s warships forced the country open to international trade, ending two centuries of isolation. Japan realized that without modern technology it was militarily weak. A group of educated samurai forced the ruling shogun to step down in 1868 and reinstated the emperor, who had until then been only a figurehead. The new regime sent young men to Germany, France, England and America to study languages, science, engineering and medicine and founded Western-style universities in Tokyo, Kyoto and elsewhere.
Hantaro Nagaoka was one of Japan’s first physicists. His father, a former samurai, initially taught his son calligraphy and Chinese. But after a trip abroad, he returned with loads of English textbooks and apologized for having taught him all the wrong subjects. At university, Nagaoka hesitated to take up science; he was uncertain if Asians could master the craft. But after a year of perusing the history of Chinese science, he decided the Japanese, too, might have a chance.
In 1903 Nagaoka proposed a model of the atom that contained a small nucleus surrounded by a ring of electrons. This “Saturnian” model was the first to contain a nucleus, discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England.
As measured by victories against China (1895), Russia (1905) and in World War I, Japan’s pursuit of technology was a success. Its larger companies established research laboratories, and in 1917 a quasigovernmental institute called Riken (the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research) came into being in Tokyo. Though designed to provide technical support to industry, Riken also conducted basic research.
A young scientist at Riken, Yoshio Nishina, was sent abroad in 1919, traveling in England and Germany and spending six years at Niels Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen. Together with Oskar Klein, Nishina calculated the probability of a photon, a quantum of light, bouncing off an electron. This interaction was fundamental to the emerging quantum theory of electromagnetism, now known as quantum electrodynamics.
When he returned to Japan in 1928, Nishina brought with him the “spirit of Copenhagen”—a democratic style of research in which anyone could speak his mind, contrasting with the authoritarian norm at Japanese universities—as well as knowledge of modern problems and methods. Luminaries from the West, such as Werner K. Heisenberg and Paul A. M. Dirac, came to visit, lecturing to awed ranks of students and faculty.