Tuesday, March 09, 2010


At the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Yu-na Kim of South Korea took the gold medal of women's figure skating competition with a world record score; and Mao Asada of Japan, the silver. Both of them played beautifully and are only 19 years old. Further, they have been rivals each other since quite young days. Thus, their rivalry will perhaps continue through coming years. This reminds me of the relationship between Hideki Yukawa and Shi'nichiro Tomonaga.

Before his publishing of the paper on the meson theory, Yukawa had the days of slowdown in his research at the Department of Physics, Osaka University. Then Hidetsugu Yagi, the then Head of the Department and known by Yagi antenna, said to him, "We had the plan of recruiting Tomonaga but your brother's request compelled us to adopt you. Therefore, we should be in trouble if you do not work harder than Tomonaga." These words stimulated Yukawa soon to complete the research on the prediction of the existence of the meson (this story has been translated and adapted from [1]). He got Nobel Prize in Physics for that work in 1949. Tomonaga shared the same award in 1965 with Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman for their work in quantum electrodynamics.

I also had some rivals in studying during my schoolboy days. They were mostly girls. Among them, one has been the enduring rival, though our specialties have been quite different. She studied Japanese literature in Edo period and is now Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, while I am a little proud of publications in many different academic journals ranging from physics to psychology. I rarely meet her or exchange messages with her but am grateful to her for continued rivalry.

(Noticing of [1] owes to the discussion we have had at Osaka Science Museum among the members of "Citizens' Study Group on Hideki Yukawa.")

Note added later: Mao Asada beat Kim Yu-na to win her second title at the World Figure Skating Championships held in Turin, Italy, on March 27, 2010.

  1. R. Utiyama's writing, quoted in: "Light" into after-war darkness, Asahi Shimbun, special pages for its 120th anniversary (February 13, 1999) in Japanese.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Poetic Answer in the Science Test

On February 20, the column of the Asahi Shimbun, "Tensei jingo," treated the nearing of spring. The column began by the question, "What does ice become when it melts?" This was a question in a science test at a primary school in Japan. The teacher expected the answer, "water." However, the question written in Japanese was rather vague, because it was close to this: What does it become when ice melts? Thus, there was a story that a child wrote the answer, "spring." The author of the column wrote this story once before, without being sure of its veracity.

However, the author received a letter from a lady reader, who had been in Supporo, a snowy large city in Hokkaido, as a child. The letter included a multicolor photocopy of a science test. In fact, it was of sepia color, showing the oldness of the test paper. One of the test question was "What does it become when snow melts?" The answer written in pencil was "The ground appears and it becomes spring." The teacher did not consider the answer as correct, and her overall test score was 85 out of 100. The reader wrote that her late mother had held on the paper and that she found it among the belongings left by the latter.

The author concluded the article by the words, 'Yesterday (February 19) it was "rain water" of 24 solar terms in East Asian lunisolar calendars. It signals the beginning of the spring thaw. After just a little of patient waiting, spring is coming again in order to make the child's "wrong answer" right.'

If I were a science teacher who asked the aforementioned question, I would have regarded the poetic answer of "spring" correct. Following the conventional wisdom only, we cannot make scientific discoveries. For fostering scientific mind, teachers should put much importance on children's original answers.

Note: Usually the English version "Vox Populi, Vox Dei" of the "Tensei jingo" column appears online soon after the publication of the Japanese version. However, the English version of the article here mentioned appeared nine days later (March 1) with the title "Hidden buds stir, eager for spring thawing." Thus, I prepared the story included in it by my own translation from the Japanese version, borrowing some expressions from the official English translation after finding it but retaining the others as prepared. The explanation of the vagueness of the relevant question, when expressed in Japanese, is mine.