Childhood encounters with science by Nobel laureates

The Nobel Chemistry Prize winner reminisces about his early influences in Taiwan and rural Japan.

Special to Asahi Shimbun

*(Editor’s Note: This is a translation of an essay by this year’s Nobel
Chemistry Prize winner, Hideki Shirakawa, that was published in Asahi
Shimbun. Titled “My Encounters with Science,” Shirakawa writes about his
childhood in rural Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, and how he became
interested in science.)*

I cannot recall exactly when I took a liking to science, particularly
chemistry. No special event comes to mind which may have inspired me. One
thing for certain, though, is that I spent 10 years of my childhood, from
the third grade until graduation from high school, in Hidatakayama, which
is blessed with nature.

North, south, east, west — no matter which way I headed, a mere five- to
10-minute walk from my home would take me to a stream or a rice field,
and beyond that, it was just mountains and more mountains. Crawling
around the swamp looking for mosengoke (roundleaf sundew), or running
about with a net catching insects was what my days were all about.

Actually, my interest in nature was aroused at a much younger age. I
believe I was three or four years old, when we were living in Taipei. I
vaguely remember watching, with tireless fascination, countless cicada
larvae crawl out of a tree trunk which had fallen during a typhoon.

When I heard my brother and sister discussing whether or not to take a
baby bird from its nest in the yard, I felt eager to hold the bird in the
palm of my hand. Memories such as these, however, were part of any
childhood back then, so it is not as if my experience was in any way
unique. I suppose, then, that in my case, moving on to live in a place
like Takayama enabled me to expand on my early experiences with nature.

Chemistry is a field in the natural sciences which looks at the structure
and characteristics of matter, as well as the chemical reactions which
occur when atoms and molecules link to form matter. It can be said that
the workings of nature, in particular the workings of life, are all a
result of chemical reactions.

Yet, no matter how hard you observe nature, these reactions will not take
place in front of your eyes. The opportunity to become familiar with
chemistry is quite limited indeed; most people have to wait until
elementary school, when performing experiments in science class.

Fortunately, I experienced much at home in addition to what I learned in
school.

I have both an older and younger brother, as well as an older and younger
sister. A family with five children was not unusual at the time, but my
mother was always very busy. To help out with the housework, each child
did his or her share.

I was in charge of cooking the rice and getting the bath ready, even
though I did not perform these chores every day. I don’t remember whether
I also washed the rice, but my mother added the required amount of water
for me. My job was to start the fire to cook the rice, and to heat the
bath. We used firewood for fuel, so I was able to learn from experience
how to make a fire and keep it under control.

Of the two chores, cooking rice kept me busier, as I had to keep a close
watch of the fire, but when preparing the bath, I did not need to pay as
much attention and had plenty of time to play around while waiting for
the water to heat up.

I discovered then, that when I added newspaper soaked in salt water to
the fire, I would get a yellow flame. I was able to see for myself an
actual flame reaction which I had learned about in a textbook.

I also played with empty ampoules, readily available since my father was
a practicing doctor.

After filling one with matchsticks, I would place it in the fire, and
watched as first, white steam, and then, a bright orange flame came
bursting out. When the ampoule was cool, I found the matchsticks inside
had been transformed into black charcoal while retaining their original
shape.

All these “experiments” were amusing to me. This was, most likely, my
first encounter with chemistry, and my little trials were equal to the
famous lessons that the English chemist and physicist, Michael Faraday,
taught using candles.

In my elementary and junior high school days, I was not only interested
in catching insects, but in plants as well. I wanted to try my hand at
making a beautiful flower bloom. What is now known as electronics also
caught my fancy, and I made several radios using crystal, and later, a
vacuum tube and transistor.

These were times of change for Japan. The country was moving out of its
war stricken poverty and gradually into economic recovery. Efforts to
learn from the West and make advances in science and technology, which
had fallen behind during the war years, were beginning to bear fruit.

Plastics was a good example. Ordinary, everyday items were now being made
out of this material.

When graduating from junior high school, we each wrote a composition
about our future, and I wrote that I wanted to go on to college to study
plastics. I soon forgot about the piece, and how I came to write what I
did. I lost the composition itself.

On the day that I retired from Tsukuba University, I locked the door to
my office, which I had cleaned out over the course of the year, and
headed home after returning my key, ID, health insurance certificate and
other items.

I could not help but feel a tinge of loneliness when I realized I would
no longer be working with my students, but I was satisfied with my
accomplishments. Although I would have no title, I was thrilled to think
that I had 24 hours a day to do as I pleased without any obligations.

It was on this day that I suddenly remembered what I had written in
junior high school. I had an urge to know why, how, and for what purpose
I had wanted to study plastics at that age. I no longer had the book of
compositions, however, and had been so out of touch with my former
classmates that I could not bring myself to ask someone to lend me a copy
after all these years.

Luckily, when I received this century’s last Nobel award in chemistry
along with two of my friends, the morning newspapers carrying the news
also printed my composition, which I read for the first time in over 40
years.

A few days ago, one of my former classmates was kind enough to send me a
copy of the book, so I now know that it was titled “Michishirube,” or
Guidepost, a collection of compositions written by the fourth graduating
class of Takayama Municipal Public Junior High School No. 2. I would like
to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my classmate.

After reading my composition, I was struck by how well I had understood
plastic as a junior high school student.

Making observations, or seeing things as they are, is the key to studying
chemistry as well as all fields of science. It seems I had mastered the
skill of observation while running around the mountains looking for
insects, or sitting in front of the stove watching the fire burn.

Why? My work, which was honored by the Nobel prize, was born out of
observing and learning from failed experiments. If I had not paid close
attention, it may have ended as just another experiment gone wrong.

Unlike physics, many students say chemistry is difficult because there is
much to be memorized. True, compared to physics, which attempts to
organize natural phenomena into a unified system, chemistry, which deals
with a variety of matter produced by chemical reactions, must seem
complex indeed. But if one has a clear sense of purpose, and the will to
learn, knowledge will follow.

Upon receiving the Nobel award this year, I was pleasantly surprised to
find that I was congratulated not only by my colleagues, but also by
children, students from junior high, high school and college, and many,
many others.

I was especially touched when about 30 fifth grade children from a school
nearby wrote essays to celebrate my award and personally delivered them
to my house with their teacher. They came back on another day with a
model of an atom they had made in science class, and hung it on my hat
rack.

Concern has been raised that the younger generation tends to shy away
from studying science, but let me say that children do like and have a
natural interest in the subject. It is up to adults to make sure that
this interest does not wither.


Copyright 2000 Asahi Shimbun Asahi Evening News – Sunday, 5 November 2000]

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