Sunday, October 19, 2008

Japan's Nobel Prizes

How Do You Say ‘We Was Robbed!’ in Italian?

All Japan rejoiced when the Swedish Academy of Sciences this month awarded Nobel prizes to four Japanese scientists. Three of the awards were in physics and the other was awarded to Osamu Shimomura, professor emeritus at Boston University, a naturalized U.S. citizen, for chemistry.

Amid the gloomy headlines dominated by slumping share prices, falling political polling numbers and a succession of heinous crimes, these awards provided Japan with rare good tidings. “AT LAST, A REASON TO CELEBRATE!” trumpeted the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Moreover, the four awards amounted to roughly a third of the total number of Nobel prizes awarded to Japanese in the sciences since the first winner (in physics), Hideki Yukawa in 1949. All of which goes a long way to dispelling the long-standing notion that while Japanese may be geniuses when it comes to adapting technology, they are dunces when it comes to original research.

But halfway around the world the award news was met with consternation. In an eerie replay of The Prize, a 1960s movie thriller starring the late Paul Newman, Italian physicists are complaining that their colleague, Nicola Cabbibo, was “robbed” of this year’s Nobel prize” by two of the Japanese scientists, according to Italian Newspapers.

At issue is the half of the prize for physics that was shared by Makoto Kobayashi, a professor emeritus as the high Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba, and Toshihide Masukawa, a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University. The other half was won by Yoichiro Nambu, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and is not controversial.

Kobayashi and Masukawa received their awards for “their discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of three families of quarks in nature.” The Italian physicists claim that Cabibbo, 73, a professor at the University of Rome, laid the foundations that led to the discoveries that the Japanese researchers actually published the 1973.

According to the Italian newspapers, the physicists maintain that the discoveries attributed to the two Japanese researchers were based on an earlier finding in 1963 by Cabibbo. In scientific circles it is often described as the “Cabibbo-Kobayashi-Masukawa matrix.”

Under Swedish Academy rules, the physics prize can be share by no more than three laureates at a time, and the other prize half of the physics award went to Nambu. His award was described by the Academy as being “for the discovery of the mechanism for the spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics.”

The angry response has come from the Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics and researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Roberto Petronzio, the institute’s president was quoted in the La Repubblica as saying that the snubbing of Cabibbo “fills me with bitterness.” It is not known if either organization will formally protest to the Swedish Academy. Cabibbo has not commented on the situation.

The controversy over the Italian scientist, however, could not dim the pride that many Japanese had in their sweeping of the science awards this year. Every time October rolls around and the Swedish Academy announces the latest batch of scientific immortals without naming a Japanese, it ignites more soul-searching about why the Japanese, despite spending billions on R&D, are not more creative.

If they handed out Nobel prizes for perfecting the home video recorder, the personal stereo or just-in-time production management techniques, Japan would dominate the awards. In fact, the awards in the sciences – physics, chemistry and medicine – recognize original research, not the applied sciences.

That could hardly be said for this year’s awards which honor work so esoteric that few but professionals can grasp the import. The same was true Shimamoru’s prize in chemistry – shared with two American researchers – for the discovery of green fluorescent protein in the type of jelly fish . . .which glows [correct, not grows] in the sea” It supposedly has important implications for the development of nerve cells in the brain.

“We rejoice at the fact that this year’s three Nobel physics laureates are from the most basic fields of science, wrote the Asahi Shimbun. “ Perspective and patience are indispensible to scientists. This is the message that rings loud and clear from the successes of this year’s three Nobel physics laureates.”

Japanese scientists have now won 13 Nobel prizes in the sciences (the three other Japanese laureates are former prime minister Eisako Sato (peace, 1974), Yasunari Kawabata (literature, 1968) and Kenzaburo Oe (literature, 1994). In its annual white paper on science and technology, the Japanese government has set a numerical target to produce 30 Nobel laureates in the first half of the century.

It could be said that Japan does not reap the recognition it deserves for the amount of money it lavishes on research and development. In 2006 Japan spent about $139 billion on basic R&D, compared with $338 billion by the U.S. and $233 billion by the European Community’. Yet Europe and America have produced literally hundreds of prize winners in the past century.

In modern times Asian nations have emerged from colonialism and gone on to many successes. But one area where they have lagged is in science. The number of Asians who have received the Nobel prize in any of the sciences is minuscule – 4 for China, 4 for India and one for Taiwan. Other prizes have been in fields of literature and peace.

When it was revealed a couple years ago that a South Korean scientist named Hwang Won Suk at Seoul National University appeared to have made an historic breakthrough in stem cell research, it seemed to most Koreans, and perhaps to Asians in general, that they had finally made it. Hwang became a rock star.

The South Korean government, which had plowed millions into Hwang’s research to help push the country into the forefront of biotechnology admitted to being crushingly disappointed when Hwang turned out to be a fraud. It pledged to continue the national support “so not to frustrate people’s hopes”.

In this case the “hopes” may not, as one might think, have been about finding cures for hard-to-treat ailments, like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Most Koreans read the words somewhat differently. They hoped that South Korea can still someday become a world leader in a scientific field.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Move Thailand's Capital out of Bangkok

In 2005 the military junta that runs Myanmar surprised and puzzled the world by moving the country’s administrative center from the old colonial capital of Yangon to the interior, creating a new city called Naypyitaw. The generals did not deign to explain the reasons for their mysterious move, but it is assumed that they felt safer from the threat popular demonstrations in their fortress capital than in Yangon. Perhaps they even had an eye to the coming of the 20th anniversary of the 1988 riots against the government that convulsed Yangon and left thousands dead.

It may be that the current government in Thailand should take a leaf from its neighbor and move the capital out of Bangkok; it would have a better reason for doing so than Myanmar’s rulers. For weeks now anti-democracy mobs have occupied the seats of government in Bangkok. Legislators have had to be extracted from the parliament building by helicopter. Thailand’s embattled new Prime Minister Somchai Wangsawat, has been running the country, to the extent that it is being run, from the VIP lounge at the old Don Muang Airport, while demonstrators continue their sit-down strike at Government House.

Somchai would do well to decamp, to move out of the VIP lounge, out of Bangkok entirely, and take as many of the government ministries with him as he can to a safer place. Perhaps he should set up temporary shop further north in the friendlier territory of Chiang Mai or perhaps Nakhon Savan.

Unlike Myanmar, Thailand is a democracy, or at least a democracy of sorts in between bouts of military rule. Thailand’s people have shown repeatedly that given a fair vote- and the election in December that brought the current government to power was considered fair - they choose leaders associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in a 2006 coup.

The middle classe activists in Bangkok simply won’t accept this result, and so by meeting in or trying to govern from Bangkok, the major coalition partner, now called the People Power Party is, essentially operating from the heart of enemy territory.

The current PM is the brother-in-law of Thaksin, which is obviously a red-flag for the vastly misnamed People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). I think one has to be Thai or a very long-term and well-connected farang to fully understand the animus that Bangkokers (and others) hold for Thaksin and his followers. I lived there for a year and a half, and I don’t really understand it.

True, there was much to dislike about Thaksin’s administration. He may have been corrupt, he tolerated a vicious extra-judicial campaign against narcotics, and he probably inflamed rather than ameliorated the insurgency in the south. Yet it is hard to believe that people are going to the barricades now over a couple thousand dead drug dealers.

But to return to the question at hand. Thailand has had several capitals since a distinct Siamese identity emerged about 1,200 years ago. Bangkok has been the seat of government for only a little more than than 200 of those years. For that matter, occasional moves have been made to relocate the capital in the Bangkok Era as well.

For some years the King has resided more or less permanently in the coastal town of Hua Hin, about 200 km south of Bangkok, coming to Bangkok only for major ceremonial occasions. Before that he spent many years living at his palace in Chiang Mai.

There was a time, back in the 1970s I believe, when the government considered moving some of the government ministries around the country, including locating some in Hua Hin. If one drives out past the railroad tracks, you can still see where they were demarked, replaced now by housing developments.

The government might move the capital back to the heartland of old Siam, around the ancient cities of Sukhotai or Phitsanulok. Or, it could take a leaf from some other countries, such as Brazil, that have relocated their capital from the coast to the interior to spur development of impoverished regions. That might mean building an entirely new capital city in northeast, known as the Isan.

At the moment the two forces in Thailand seem to be at a stalemate. Moving the capital, or threatening to move the capital might be a game-changer (to use the current Americanism). In any case, the government would have a lot better reason to do it than the generals did in Myanmar.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Sultan of Zen

Should Sadaharu Oh be in baseball’s Hall of Fame?

Any baseball player who hit 868 home runs during his career then went on to manage two teams to league championships, who had a lifetime batting average of .300 and played in 20 all-star games would be a shoo-in for the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., a sure first-vote nominee.

But of course Sadaharu Oh compiled his batting record during two decades as a player for the Yomiuri Giants, spending his entire career in the Japanese professional baseball league. He never had a chance to display his power in the American Major Leagues like so many of his countrymen do today.

Oh announced that he was hanging up his uniform after an astonishing 50 years in the game, both as a player and as a manager. He cited both poor health - he had been operated on for cancer two years previously - and the current poor showing of the Softbank Hawks, who are fighting for last place in Japan’s Pacific League.

(Japanese baseball teams are named after their owners. Hence the Yomiuri Giants are named after their owner, the Yomiuri news group. Its base is Tokyo, and that location in Japan’s capital and largest city and long record of winning championships make the Giants the New York Yankees of Japan)

One of the great “what if’s” of baseball is how Oh might have fared if he had played in the American Major Leagues, as so many great Japanese players do today now almost as a matter of course. But Oh’s playing days were in the 1960s and 1970s when no Japanese appeared in American ballparks.

The first Japanese player to make his mark in the U.S. was Hideo Nomo, who joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitcher in 1995. But the really big break came in 2001, when Ichiro Suzuki (who is known to everyone on both sides of the Pacific by his given name) joined the Seattle Mariners.

Debate rages among baseball aficionados as to whether Oh could have hit 868 home runs as a Major League player and whether his record really does stand in comparison with Bond’s, Henry Aaron’s or even Babe Ruth’s lifetime 714. Did he make his record against inferior pitching or shorter ball parks?

One can never know, but there is no question he could hit Major League pitching. He hit 25 home runs off of American pitchers in various exhibition games played in Japan while he was a Giant. Among his peers in the Major League, there is a general agreement that he would have been a great player possibly hitting 500 lifetime homers but not the equal of Babe Ruth.

“There’s no question that he would not have hit 800 home runs if he had played here,” Pete Rose once wrote. But he added that Oh would have probably averaged about 35 homers a year and ended with the .300 batting average he had in Japan.

If that is the case, why shouldn’t Oh be inducted into America’s Hall of Fame (naturally he’ll find a prime place in the Japanese version)? At the moment no Japanese has ever found his name on a Cooperstown plaque, but it seems only a matter of time before Ichiro becomes the first.

Although a few dissenters carp that Ichiro is not a power hitter, it might be hard to deny a player who made 200 hits in eight consecutive seasons, including a record 262 in 2006. Considering that the previous record-holder, Wee Willie (“I hit ‘em where they ain’t”) Keeler, is a Hall of Famer, it might be hard to deny the honor to Ichiro.

Baseball fans who favor the idea of Oh being admitted point to the induction of a dozen or so African-American baseball players who never had a chance to play in the Majors because they played before the color bar was broken by Jackie Robinson in 1949.

However, Oh would have to overcome one serious blot on his reputation likely to weigh heavily with the American sportswriters who vote. That is how he allegedly treated American players who threatened his Japanese record of 55 home runs in a single season set in 1964. Three Americans playing for Japanese teams neared or tied Oh’s record: Randy Bass hit 54, Karl Rhodes and Alex Cabrera each hit 55.

In the crucial end of season games, Japanese pitchers blatantly walked Rhodes and Cabrera, rather than throw anything that they could hit. It so happened that in both instances the opposing team was managed by Sadaharu Oh. Even the Japanese baseball commissioner complained of poor sportsmanship.

The distinction between American and Japanese leagues is declining as more Americans play for Japanese teams and more Japanese play for American teams. Americans cheer Ichiro, the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui and the latest Japanese phenom, Kosuke Fukudome (signed for $48 million over four years), who helped power the Chicago Cubs into contention this year.

Last year’s World Series was played simultaneously with the Japanese championships, the Nippon Series. Anyone in Japan tuning in on television might find Daisuke Matsuzaka on the mound for the Boston Red Sox. Turn the channel and Brian Sweeney is pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Pretty soon you begin to wonder which series you are watching.

Recognizing Oh’s greatness with a plaque at Cooperstown would simply underscore just how much baseball has become a truly global spectator sport and would turn the National Hall of Fame into an International Hall of Fame.