A NOBEL LAUREATE'S THOUGHTS ABOUT THINKING | Discuss Japan-Japan Foreign Policy Forum
Culture, No.3  Nov. 28, 2010


TAKEUCHI KAORU Appropriations for science and technology have recently been cut sharply as a result of the government’s program-review process. I believe it’s a serious problem if the work on basic science is weakened. How do you feel about that?

MASKAWA TOSHIHIDE If you look at examples from the past, it takes about a hundred years for the fruits of basic science to be returned to society in practical form. For example, the use of radar in World War II was the beginning of people’s ability to make free use of radio waves. Then after the war television was developed. All this was based on the Maxwell equations summing up the laws of electromagnetic fields, which were drawn up in 1864 by James Maxwell. It was about eighty years from then to the 1940s. It’s the same story in other fields.

TAKEUCHI I was recently called to the Ministry of Finance, where they asked me, “What fields of science and technology do you think money should be devoted to?” I responded by giving them a little lecture: It takes an extremely long time before practical applications for basic research emerge. Even people who make great discoveries don’t know whether they’ll be useful in the future. That’s the essence of science, I told them.

MASKAWA That’s the key point. If we let basic science wither now, we won’t have development in the future.

Nowadays even at universities all the attention is going to practical applications. In the case of engineering, start-up firms are in the limelight, and small basic research projects look insignificant by comparison. People take to suggesting that such work isn’t necessary. We need to think carefully about balance in this respect.

Meanwhile, elementary particle experiments are being conducted by thousand-person teams.

TAKEUCHI Modern science has become big in scale. In your field of research, verifying the theoretical findings takes a tremendous amount of money, doesn’t it?

MASKAWA Some people ask if we find our large-scale experimental research interesting, but that’s not the point. As studies progress, the scale inevitably gets big. We need to have an environment to provide proper support for basic science. That’s true culture, I believe.

Getting into Nagoya University Even with a Zero Score in English

TAKEUCHI When did you first become interested in science?

MASKAWA I wasn’t good at studying in elementary school, and I never did my homework. [Laughs] I certainly wasn’t a model student. It was my father who got me interested in science. He was a furniture maker operating a small workshop, but he really wanted to be an electrical engineer, and for a while he was taking correspondence courses from a university. He wanted to tell somebody about what he was learning, and so he took to giving me little lectures on our way to and from the public bath. He’d tell me things like what makes motors turn, for example, or why there isn’t a solar eclipse every month. He wasn’t teaching me so much as showing off. [Laughs]

He must have been interested. With the proper education I think he would have made a decent engineer.

TAKEUCHI I understand that after the war your father went into the sugar business. And apparently you struggled with him after you declared you wanted to go to college rather than carry on the family business.

MASKAWA It came to a head just before I took the entrance exam. As the deadline for submitting my application approached, he stubbornly insisted that I didn’t need college learning to run a sugar business. My mother got into the act and helped bring him around. When she was young apparently she had been envious of women whose husbands had white-collar jobs. The funny thing, though, is that to her “white-collar” meant somebody who worked as a technician at an agricultural experiment station. She grew up in a fishing village, and experiment station technicians were just about the only white-collar workers she had seen. So she kept telling me, “Apply to the agriculture department.” [Laughs]

TAKEUCHI I understand that as you prepared for the entrance exam for admission to the science faculty at Nagoya University, you drew up a careful plan so that you could pass even after giving up on English, which you were poor at.

MASKAWA In those days the entrance exams for national universities covered five subjects: English, Japanese, math, social studies, and science, with two hundred points for each. I aimed to get 90 percent right in my good subjects, math and science. I figured I might even get zero in English–and in fact my score was close to that. I know the actual number. [Laughs]

TAKEUCHI Did you learn your score after you were admitted?

MASKAWA In those days if you went to the school office and asked, they’d tell you your scores. So I know how I did in all the subjects. I got a bit higher score than I should have in social studies, and the results in the other subjects were just about as I had planned.

Teaching Children Not to Think

TAKEUCHI What do you think about university entrance exams these days?

MASKAWA I think they should stop making the exam system so complex. They say it’s so that people will have more than one chance to take the exams, but as a result university faculty members have to devote tremendous amounts of energy to preparing the questions. It’s also a big burden on high school teachers and students taking the exams.

I think it’s enough just to conduct each exam once. Is it really necessary to have such a complicated system to see how far students have reached in their high school studies? Absolutely not.

The exam questions should be simple. But that doesn’t mean they should be easy.

TAKEUCHI So you think it’s all right to present questions that are somewhat hard to chew, so to speak?

MASKAWA If you give kids time, they’ll follow along even if you make them strain a bit. Mind you, that doesn’t work with the ones who haven’t acquired the habit of learning. A different approach needs to be considered for them. But those who are already on track will tackle even quite difficult problems.

It’s wrong to lump the ones who are falling behind together with the ones who are moving ahead. The approaches for the two types of students need to be separate.

I read a newspaper column that reported the results from a uniform test that was given to high school, junior high school, and elementary school students. Among the questions was one on which the elementary school kids did best, the junior high school kids came in second, and the high school kids came in last. They were asked to draw what would happen to the surface of the water in a half-full beaker if you tilted it. The elementary school pupils thought about it as well as they could and wrote answers. Some of them drew a wavy surface. They probably thought that tilting the beaker might make waves in the water. But the high school students skipped the question. They didn’t even try to answer it. That’s because they’ve been taught to skip questions about things they haven’t experienced.

TAKEUCHI Is that a technique they learn for entrance exams?

MASKAWA Yes. The education system in this country is designed to teach how to get good entrance exam scores, which means that great effort has gone into producing kids who don’t think. That question I mentioned is one that they could answer if they thought about it. But as kids experience entrance exams, they progressively stop thinking with their own heads and turn into people who can only regurgitate what they’ve been taught. I call this “educational pollution.”

TAKEUCHI Japanese students are more likely than ones from other countries to turn in blank answers. This is something that’s been pointed out in the Program for International Student Assessment run by the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development].

MASKAWA It’s probably because, as I said before, they skip questions with problems that they haven’t encountered. They don’t try to think for themselves. The problems shouldn’t be that difficult if they’d just devote some proper thought to them.

TAKEUCHI The entrance exam system has done serious harm.

MASKAWA They should make the system simpler and give both students and teachers more leeway. That would allow them to do more interesting things.

Back in the mid-1970s a group of Japanese mathematicians and high school teachers went to observe secondary schools in the Soviet Union. The contents of the regular classroom lessons were not very different from those at high schools in Japan, but at the extracurricular math club sessions they were doing some fascinating things. For example, a teacher presented an interesting problem concerning curves of constant width, of which a circle is one example, and had the students think about it.

TAKEUCHI Curves of constant width–those include Reuleaux triangles, which are similar to the shapes used in Wankel engines, right? At a math club it’s possible to take up even topics like that, which would be too hard for the classroom.

MASKAWA It struck me that this must be great for students who like math. For extracurricular activities like this, in some cases they could probably get retired university professors to come and teach. I think they’d gladly come even for token pay. Having experienced the world of academic study, they’d be able to transmit the excitement of this sort of activity directly to students. It ought to be quite stimulating both for the students and the teachers at the schools hiring these retired professors.

Physics Doesn’t Pay?

TAKEUCHI Recently the share of high school students taking physics has fallen below 30 percent. Back when I was in high school the share was more than 80 percent. I hear that even at the University of Tokyo the physics department barely has enough applicants to fill its openings for students. When I was young lots of people wanted to go into physics; it’s a shock to learn that the numbers have dropped so sharply.

MASKAWA That’s probably related to the university entrance exams. Students presumably think their chances are better in other subject areas than in physics.

TAKEUCHI I suppose they think they’re better off doing chemistry and biology as their science subjects for exam purposes, because they have the idea that their test scores will improve more relative to the number of hours they devote to studying.

MASKAWA So it seems to me that if we take the viewpoint that physics is necessary for society, we need to come up with a set of measures of some sort.

TAKEUCHI Physics is quite basic among the fields of science; it provides the foundation for chemistry and biology. And I think it’s directly linked to the manufacturing of a century from now. So I feel a sense of crisis at the apparent hollowing out of this field.

MASKAWA A similar trend has been visible in the United States since thirty years ago. The better students all started going into finance. They probably think physics doesn’t pay. Students will pick a field that offers good pay. If they think becoming a doctor will allow them to make a lot of money, they’ll turn to medical studies in droves.

This isn’t an educational problem so much as a social problem, so that’s how we have to treat it. It won’t do any good just to fiddle with the entrance exam system and try to tempt students with the prospect of easier admission. Students tend to cluster in the faculties and departments of fields that they think will allow them to live in comfort after they graduate. This is a tendency that can’t easily be changed.

TAKEUCHI Physics ties in with the core of the country’s industry. How can we revive it?

MASKAWA I see no quick fix. But if we can persuade young people that physics is not only interesting but also guarantees a fairly comfortable life, plenty will gather in the field.

You say that less than 30 percent of high school students are taking physics. Some may think that it’s a tough subject, but objectively that’s not true. I found physics actually to be much simpler than biology, because you can solve the problems as long as you know a certain amount of math and learn some basic ideas. So the prime factor is not the difficult or discouraging nature of the subject matter. Plenty of people apply for admission to medical faculties regardless of how tough the field is. I think people will gather in the field of physics if they recognize it as a path to social advantages.

Seeing the Way to Six Quarks

TAKEUCHI I’d like to ask you a bit about your own research. Your Nobel prize was based on an article that you wrote with Kobayashi Makoto and published in 1973. I learned about it from a university textbook in the 1980s. I heard that you got the idea of the existence of six types of quarks while soaking in the bathtub. Is that true?

MASKAWA I think it’s easiest to understand if I start with the difference between physics and math. In math you can decide to generalize and work with a matrix of n rows and n columns. But in the case of elementary particles, at the time only three types of quarks had been confirmed. There was the idea that increasing the number to four would produce interesting theoretical conclusions, so we naturally started discussing a four-quark model. It would have been hard even to think about a six-type model–and pointless if it weren’t true.

TAKEUCHI I can understand that. It’s no use if the fifth and sixth types of quark don’t actually exist.

MASKAWA At the time we only knew three types, and considering a fourth was as far as we could go. So we discussed a four-quark model, but we couldn’t seem to get anywhere with it. That’s where the bath came in. [Laughs]

While taking a bath, you have time to just sit there and let your thoughts roam. One evening, as my mind wandered, I found myself thinking, “Okay, this four-quark model isn’t working. Maybe it’s time to write a paper saying that it won’t work and leave it at that.” I made up my mind to do so, and got out of the tub. But as I did, I found myself thinking, “Instead of writing a lame article like that, how about going for a six-quark model?” And as I thought about it, the idea that six might work seemed almost obvious to me from mental calculation.

So in the bath I first of all resolved to give up on the four-quark approach. If you’re in the tub letting your mind roam, it’s the ideal place to reach a decision, wouldn’t you say?

TAKEUCHI Now that you mention it, I get my ideas for stories mostly while soaking in the tub. [Laughs]

MASKAWA What I do when I want to come up with a new idea is go for a walk. Walking is very good.

TAKEUCHI At that point a four-quark model was the natural next step. Taking it to six was quite a leap.

MASKAWA That’s where physics is different from mathematics. Right after we completed our paper, an older physicist asked me mockingly, “Do you honestly think there are six types?” I replied that the theory worked in terms of the calculations the six-type model allowed, and if there weren’t actually six, it would mean that the premises were mistaken.

TAKEUCHI Did your paper draw an immediate response?

MASKAWA Practically nobody in Japan quoted it until Iwasaki Yōichi, who at the time was head of the Research Institute for Fundamental Physics at Kyoto University, learned of our work and told people in Tokyo that an interesting paper had been published. Only then did word reach the Tokyo area. Sugawara Hirotaka at the National Laboratory for High Energy Physics, who had heard from Iwasaki, took it to be a very important paper, and he introduced it at an international conference and wrote a paper of his own discussing its significance. It was only after these mentions that our paper started to appear in the Science Citation Index.

TAKEUCHI Was it after that recognition by Iwasaki and Sugawara that your work won the approval of Yoichiro Nambu?

MASKAWA Getting a seal of approval from the respected Dr. Nambu was in a sense a victory statement. In 1978 he gave the summary talk at a key global gathering for those in the field of particle physics, the International Conference on High Energy Physics, which was held in Japan that year as the “Tokyo Conference,” and he referred to the violation of CP symmetry, saying that the Kobayashi-Maskawa six-quark model was promising in this connection. This was reported in the press at the time–the first time my name ever appeared in a newspaper.

A Walker Lost in Thought

TAKEUCHI Earlier you mentioned that you often walk. Is that a way of staying healthy for you?

MASKAWA Oh no, I’ve never done anything for my health. It’s just that walking is the best way for me to think about things without needing to come up with a conclusion. It’s like with electronic circuits–when it’s too quiet, there are no oscillations. Add a bit of noise, though, and that serves as a trigger to get the oscillations going. It’s the same way with walking, which gives you bits of stimulus as you go along.

TAKEUCHI And that introduces small amounts of noise in the circuits of the brain.

MASKAWA This stimulus can make your thinking jump in a different direction.

TAKEUCHI So walking is good for making mental leaps.

MASKAWA I can’t do it without walking. But I often get yelled at by truck drivers: “You! Watch where you’re going!”

TAKEUCHI I assume you’re thinking about math and physics problems. That’s terrific concentration. But it sounds a bit dangerous too! [Laughs]

MASKAWA I get lost in thought and don’t look ahead. I’ll cross at a light and then have no memory of how I did so. I always tell my wife that if I get into a traffic accident, she should know that it was my fault.

TAKEUCHI It’s a fair hike from your university to Nikenchaya, the nearest train station, isn’t it?

MASKAWA It takes about twenty minutes. There’s a shuttle bus, which I sometimes take on my way to school, but on my way back I always walk–and firmly say no thank you if I’m offered a ride.

A World Without War in Two Centuries?

TAKEUCHI I understand it’s your conviction that in another two hundred years wars will no longer happen. That seems quite distinctive.

MASKAWA It’s what you could call my view of history, though my colleagues sometimes ask me if I’m thinking straight.

If you look at century-long spans, you can see history moving in a certain direction, even if the pendulum seems to swing back a number of times. Until the nineteenth century people couldn’t even imagine a world without war, but now at least it’s a subject of discussion. The idea has emerged that war is a bad thing, and most people now think it would be better to avoid it if possible. So even though it may take some time, I think history is moving in that direction and that eventually there will be no more wars.

One of the causes of war is colonization. When World War II ended, the world still had many colonies, but after that they gradually decreased, and now, even though some countries are still disadvantaged economically, none of them are formal colonies.

Today’s society has created a foundation for getting on without war. The idea that war is undesirable has spread, and we now have a society in which it’s extremely difficult to go to war. The causes of war still exist, but I believe that they’ll be eliminated in a hundred years or so.

TAKEUCHI But you talk about the process taking two hundred years. What will the additional hundred years involve?

MASKAWA After the French Revolution, they established a republican government, but after that the country swung back and forth between being a republic and being a monarchy. We probably need to allow time for swings like that. But even taking those into account, I believe that a total of two hundred years should be sufficient.

Individual human beings may be stupid and weak, but humankind as a whole has wonderful wisdom. I’m confident that this is something people are quite capable of accomplishing.

Some of my friends make mean comments, saying things like, “You’re not going to be around in two hundred years.” I don’t like to let it go at that, so I think I’ll put my idea in writing and leave a will asking my descendants to see this process through to its completion.

Translated from “‘Kyōiku osen’ o yame, wakamono ga kagaku ni yume o moteru kuni ni,” Chūō Kōron, August 2010, pp. 54-65; abridged by about one-fourth. The original article was transcribed from an interview conducted at Kyoto Sangyō University on May 26, 2010. (Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha) [November 2010]