Particle Physics Research

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Makoto Kobayashi

    Main guest

    Physicist Makoto Kobayashi was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2008. In 1973, along with fellow physicist Toshihide Maskawa, Kobayashi published to great acclaim an article that offered a successful theoretical explanation of CP violation, a phenomenon that relates to the imperfect symmetry between particles and antiparticles. Their findings led to the prediction of the existence of previously undiscovered elementary particles, and to great advances in particle physics research.

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October 3, 2017

Particle Physics Research

*You will leave the NHK website.

Though the title of this edition of Japanology Plus might inspire a few double-takes, rest assured, you have not accidentally tuned into the wrong program: as it turns out, particle physics research is as Japanese as sushi and sumo. Japanese scientists and technologies are some of the world’s most significant when it comes to particle physics research.

Our guide is expert guest Makoto Kobayashi, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2008 for his work in the realm of elementary particles. But what exactly are elementary particles?

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Expert guest Kobayashi, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008, does a great job of explaining a difficult topic in easy-to-understand language.

Readers who can remember their middle and high school science courses will recall that all the matter on earth is made up of atoms, and that atoms themselves are made up of subatomic particles like protons and neutrons. Break those down even further, and you’ve got elementary particles.

The definition of elementary particles has actually changed over the years. While it once referred to particles that could not (it was thought) be broken down any further, physicists kept discovering these ever-smaller particles could, in fact, be further divided. Now "elementary particles" simply refers to the smallest currently-known particles. Research into one such particle, the neutrino, is currently underway in Japan, and is the main focus of the program.

As host Peter Barakan discovers, researching these tiny particles requires some massive equipment. He takes a tour of one of the facilities that makes up a project called T2K, in which a neutrino beam in Tokai is fired underground for 300 kilometers to a separate facility in Kamioka (the "K" in T2K) called Super-Kamiokande. In August 2017, the T2K team announced recent experiments which strengthen the case that neutrinos exhibit CP violation—results that connect directly to the research for which expert guest Kobayashi won the Nobel Prize.

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Photomultiplier tubes like these help physicists detect neutrinos.

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Peter Barakan visits J-PARC, one half of the T2K project, in Tokai. The T2K project is made up of a diverse international team.

Kobayashi is one of several Japanese physicists who have won the Nobel Prize for their work in the field. The program briefly profiles these physicists—as well as the man whose leadership helped inspire them.

That man is Yoshio Nishina, sometimes referred to as the "father of modern physics in Japan." Born in 1890, Nishina studied under Niels Bohr in Copenhagen for six years in the 1920s. Along with Swedish physicist Oskar Klein, he developed the Klein-Nishina formula, which, simply put, predicts how protons scatter. After returning to Japan, Nishina continued making valuable discoveries of his own—and, just as importantly, created a research institute that fostered the work of future Nobel laureates like Hideki Yukawa and Shinichiro Tomonaga.

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In Plus One, Matt Alt gets a look at how photomultiplier tubes are made.

Unfortunately, World War II brought tragedy to the last years of Nishina’s life: his laboratory was heavily damaged and much of his equipment was destroyed. Praised as an "inspiring and generous leader" by Nobel Prize winner and friend Ernest O. Lawrence after his death in 1951, Nishina was a symbol of international cooperation and friendship in an era when international antagonism was the order of the day.

Hideki Yukawa, Japan's first Nobel laureate, worked in Nishina's lab, where he predicted the existence of the particle he dubbed the meson. He was 27 years old at the time. When he won the Nobel, Yukawa told reporters, with typical Japanese modesty, "I am very proud and happy to receive the award, though I am not certain why I have been chosen this year." Yukawa later penned an autobiography in which he wrote, regarding his pioneering work in physics, of his desire to be "a traveler in a strange land, a colonist of a new country." As well as navigating the world of physics, Yukawa was a traveler in a more conventional sense, working as a professor at Columbia University in New York.

Indeed, many of Japan's top scientists have spent significant time abroad, working in international teams and overcoming language and cultural barriers in the pursuit of knowledge. The opposite is true as well: the Japan-based T2K project, for example, is made up of about 500 members from 11 countries. One can't help but wonder whether this research, in addition to adding to the depth of human knowledge, may also contribute to a more cooperative, peaceful world—as physics has proven, after all, we're all made up of the same particles.

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Don't look down: this shaft at J-PARC contains the device in which neutrinos are generated when protons hit their target.

*You will leave the NHK website.