AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIV , No. 2, Fall 2002


Challenges in Writing the Biography of a Japanese Physicist
by Dong-Won Kim, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

A number of Japanese physicists made significant contributions to physics during the twentieth century. Until very recently, however, Western historians have not fully appreciated how Japanese physicists fostered the development of physics as a science. One reflection of the Western view of Japanese physicists as "outsiders" is the fact that not a single biography of a Japanese physicist (except a few translations from Japanese) has been published in the English language.

As a historian of science, I set myself the task of writing a biography of Yoshio Nishina (to be published through the Institute of Physics, Bristol, England in the near future). I first became curious about Nishina while examining the Cavendish Laboratory's 1922 annual photograph. As I looked at the image of the young Japanese physicist, I slightly remembered Nishina's name and asked myself, "What was this Japanese researcher doing in this center of experimental physics?" I soon learned, from fragmentary English sources, that Nishina trained under Niels Bohr for several years, that he co-authored the well-known Klein-Nishina formula, and that, during the 1930s and 1940s, he contributed significantly to the development, in Japan, of several branches of physics. Later, after examining Japanese sources commenting on Nishina, I came to believe that Nishina's life and works were worth investigating. Thus I began what I considered at the time to be a "little" research project.

I soon found that appraising Nishina's role within the international physics community was more difficult than I had anticipated. The literature revealed that the Klein-Nishina formula might be Nishina's only distinguished publication in the West. I struggled for some time to justify why I should study this "less important" physicist. Another difficulty was that there are no systematic analyses of Nishina's role as director of his laboratory at the Riken (the Institute for Physical and Chemical Research) or his role as teacher of the young Japanese physicists who flocked there to study under him. Most seriously, cultural prejudices colored the different views of Nishina held by East Asians and Westerners. The Japanese hailed Nishina as a great star in the physics constellation, while Westerners viewed him as a lesser figure in the intellectual history of science.

Japanese scientists and historians almost unanimously praise Nishina as Japan's "father of modern physics," a popular description that in 1991 was used as the subtitle of a documentary video celebrating the centenary of Nishina's birth. In the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, the distinguished Japanese historian of science, Eri Yagi, concluded that, "without Nishina's return from Europe with the principles of quantum mechanics," Japan's two Nobel laureates in physics, Yukawa and Tomonaga, "might never have developed their potentials to the fullest." In East Asia, such celebrated figures as Nishina traditionally are depicted as "perfect" men, leaders without fault whose mistakes or failures (if any) were the unavoidable results of causes outside themselves. Any sharp criticism of heroes, particularly great sensei [teachers], is not permitted.

Under such circumstances, it seems fair to doubt whether a historian of science who is culturally East Asian such as myself (a South Korean) can construct a reasonably probing appraisal of Nishina's contributions. I do fully agree with my Japanese colleagues that Nishina was a great man. Yet my appreciation of his greatness is based on ideas and opinions somewhat different from those expressed in traditional Japanese scholarship, particularly in areas touching on how and why Nishina's role and contributions became critical to the development of the Japanese physics community. In studying Nishina's life and work, my goal has been to correctly appraise his contributions, and any such evaluation, honestly attempted, runs the risk of containing some criticism. I am perhaps too "Westernized" in my views (as my Japanese colleagues often suggest).

Somewhat ironically, then, my quest for the truth about Nishina has also been hampered by the idea, popular among Western physicists and historians of science, that successes by Japanese physicists since the 1930s have been the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps as a result, Westerners have made little effort to incorporate the work accomplished by Japanese physicists into the larger framework of the history of physics, and Nishina's work on cosmic rays and his construction of two cyclotrons during the late 1930s are not fully appreciated in the West. Worse, when studying the history of science in Japan, Westerners have tended to focus their attention on the transmission of Western science to that countrya practice that has obscured many facts about Japanese physicists, such as Nishina's cooperation with Klein on the calculation of Compton scattering, his role in the introduction into Japan of the infant field of quantum mechanics, and, of course, the construction of the cyclotrons, which was far more than a simple transfer of know-how from Ernest Lawrence of Berkeley, as Nishina's team met and overcame many difficulties.

Although Western scholarship recognizes the merits of some twentieth-century Japanese physicists, the community in which those individuals worked has received scant attention. Westerners have not endeavored to understand the Japanese physics community of the twentieth century within its broader international context. Most fail to appreciate the community's independence and importance. Language barriers surely add another obstacle.

Despite so many difficulties in appraising Nishina, I have loved this task! But even though I am an East Asian with a better understanding of the Japanese people and their culture than most Westerners, I am not quite certain that I will be able to present a well-balanced picture of that culture which will be understandable to Western readers with little knowledge about Japan. After ten years of research, my analysis may satisfy neither Japanese readers nor Western readers, and perhaps may not even satisfy myself. Even so, it will be impossible for me to regret that I enjoyed the special privilege of studying the life and works of such a great and charming figure as Yoshio Nishina.

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