—— Can you tell us about what you are currently researching?
Our research group is searching for traces of the universe one-second after its creation by looking at systems 10 billion light years away from us through the world’s largest Keck telescope and the Japanese Subaru telescope located at the summit of Mauna Kea, with an altitude 4,200 m on the Island of Hawaii. Modern physics enables us to investigate what happened to the very first second of this 13.7 billion year-old universe based on observations. One second after the Big Bang, a bulk of pure energy got separated into two species, light and matter. The slightest asymmetry in matter and anti-matter let the matter be survived and created us all. Within three minutes after the Big Bang, the light elements were created (Hydrogen 95%, Helium 5% and very few others). Our work is to measure these elements very accurately and find out why there is asymmetry, what kind of new physics is hidden there, and we’re even trying to understand what happened to the universe before the first second of the Big Bang.。
—— What are we, the earth and sun made of?
Just like alchemists had tried and failed in the 17th century, the combination of elements can be changed but the element itself can never be changed. Copper will never become gold. Naturally, it begs a question. Why we have more than 100 kinds of elements here on the Earth today while there were only two major elements at the beginning of the universe. We must realize the truth that we were all created through the birth and death of the stars. Our bodies are organic chains of carbon which is the element made from the burning of stars. When we breathe oxygen, what we are breathing is the very element that is created inside of the big stars. Iron is the most stable element, and will be released when binary stars explode. As for elements heavier than iron, we think they are released when big stars explode (supernova exploration). Human beings, animals, plants, microbes and all life forms, as well as air, water, rocks, and soil were once lively shining stars billions of years ago. All of us have gone through many cycles of birth and death of stars. Many elements from stars were mixed, and finally the sun, the earth and our solar system were formed 4.6 billion years ago.
—— When did you become interested in the universe?
When I was in elementary school. I was born in Asakusa, Tokyo and grew up in an environment where it was almost impossible to see the stars. Even living in right in the middle of a big city, I was always going to nearby parks and trying to catch insects. I tried to raise butterflies, dragonflies, mantis and bell crickets etc. from eggs to imago. One early morning, as I looked to the sky I saw that Venus, Jupiter and Saturn were aligned. They were shining beautifully. That spectacular view only happens once in every 20 years. From observing insects I realized that their lives were so transitory while stars exist for billions of years and yet we share the same universe. When I became aware of this fact, I began to fall in love with the charm of the universe and felt that I wanted to know more about the beginning of the world grew even stronger.
On the other-hand that feeling began to wane when I entered high school. I thought the Japanese educational system was inadequate. I had a teacher strike me for some thing that I didn’t do. That teacher was supposed to guide me in selecting a future school and instead of finding out what I was interested in and what I wanted to do, he just told me “Your scores are good so you should go to this university.” I thought I’d never listen to “that fucking idiot!” So after that I looked at life and society from a very different perspective. During that time I was always involved in some sort of confrontation with my teacher and my health suffered. I got sick from it, even vomiting blood, so I quit high school and started working.
During that time my brother in-law was a fellow in the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management (a cultivating organization for national leaders, which was founded by Kohnosuke Matsushita) and he said, “My classmates are running for election... Do you want to help us?” So I started to work for them. I was working with Mr. Yoshihiko Noda, Mr. Kazunori Yamanoi, Ms. Sanae Takaichi who are current members of Japan’s House of Representatives and I saw their lifestyle and that caused something to change in me. Before that I had a strong distrust for politicians and had no interest in politics. I thought they were all bad people and didn’t do anything, but I got a very different impression from these three. At that time they had just graduated from university and were regular people, not celebrities, and they had a dream to become politicians and fight to make their dreams come true. They wanted to break the traditions of money and power, and wanted to build and repair the sewers, as well as, wanting to make Japan an easier place to live for older people. They were really thinking about people and fighting to make this world a better place. They were truly noble-minded patriots. They accepted me as a partner even though I was high school dropout and was considered to be a bad boy. We would talk about things until midnight, prepare our flyers and wake up at 4:00 am and start campaigning, talking to people in the streets about their ideas. They were in the city walking and running giving out flyers and giving speeches. We ate together, slept together, and spent 24 hours a day together and those people never put on a front for people. Even after they passed out on the street and went to the hospital they went right back to doing this, no matter if it was raining or windy. Even when it snowed, with snow on their shoulders they didn’t even use umbrellas and when I saw how involved they were in what they were doing... that’s when I woke up and realized that in this world there are really determined people... and I wanted to be one too. I feel that they taught me that there are no royal ways or shortcuts to making your dreams come true. That’s the time I decided I wanted to make my dreams come true and find out the secrets of the universe. So I went back to high school.
—— What’s the reason you came to the United States?
In 1987, a training summer session for the International Mathematic Olympiad was held in Los Angeles and I joined the preliminary skirmish and that was the beginning. Back then Japan wasn’t an official member, but they were looking for applicants from Japan for the purpose of international exchange and training. My sister saw their ad in the newspaper and I was very good in math so I thought I’d try. Each high school recommended applicants and the applicants had to take examinations and be interviewed. About 10 people were chosen from this process. When I came to the United States I became friends with other students from all over the world and I realized there are no borders in math. Math is an even playing field for everyone, not related to whether you are a man or woman, and there are no language-barriers. There were different awards in that competition and I got a silver medal. A university professor who taught geometry sent a letter to me in Japan and it said, “You did it. From now on you must take advantage of the insight you have and one day you must come back to the United States.” After I also had other teachers that wrote recommendation letters for me, and we still keep in touch.
After that I entered college and applied for the exchange program at UCLA. At that time the University of California was building the world’s largest Keck on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. I was very interested in that, but when I was studying at UCLA I was only a learning student and was not involved in serious research other than experiments for students. My research career started after I entered the University of Tokyo Graduate School. In graduate school I joined the Subaru Telescope project, which is connected with the research I’m doing now.
—— On the way toward pursuing your dream did everything go smoothly throughout your life in graduate school?
It’s supposed to be that way but... As a matter of fact, one year after I entered graduate school something terrible happened that I never imagined would happen and nobody in my family knew about this. My father had lost a tremendous amount of money in the stock market. During that time my older sister was living in New York, because of her husband’s work, but she often had to travel back and forth to Japan because she had to take care of her grand mother in-law who was incapacitated, and her mother in-law who was fighting breast cancer, and her father in-law who was told he only had three months to live because of a brain tumor. She was busy everyday because of all this. On the other hand my older brother was in and out of the hospital with a case of Hepatitis C and had a hard time doing his work. Even my mother had a car accident, and my father didn’t know how to handle all of this and became mentally deranged. Because of these unusual circumstances, I realized that I was the only person that could stay cool and deal with all of this. So as far as the financial problems went, I was calculating all of the debts and discussing all the details with the stockbrokers and banks, in order to sell everything we had. I also had to deal with all of the procedures for the trials. We lost hundreds of hundreds of millions of yen, twice as much as we had. To be honest I really thought we were finished. It was impossible for me to continue my studies, so I started seriously looking for job and had 4 job offers in a week. Even though my situation was tough my instructor still gave me encouragement and told me “It probably will take you a longtime to deal with everything, but please come back to school”. I just couldn’t take the insults and abuse of my trying situation anymore so the night I decided to quit school, I was walking along the Sumida River. I saw beautiful cherry blossoms but they were about to end. The cherry leaves were shattered on the ground so as my dreams and I started to cry. I cried hard but only few drops would come out. That is because that teardrops are only 0.2 cc, and the tear stores in the lachrymal gland are only about 1 cc., so there are not many tears that can actually be stored in the lachrymal gland. So it’s a lie to say that you cried all night long. No matter how sad you are the emotional phenomenon of crying only last few minutes. This fact somewhat lightened my mind.
It may sound strange but the person who gave me the chance to change everything was a stock officer who was about to retire after 40 years of his service. He told me, “ Bankers, brokers, programmers, no matter what kind of business it is, no matter what kind of job it is, I believe that you can do everything, but there are some things that other people can not do, that only you can do and I think that would be the field of science. By doing that kind of work you can do a great service to others. For example, in your situation, you probably noticed that money doesn’t necessarily bring you happiness. People are very weak with their desires and people are weak themselves. The pursuit of the materialistic world is not for you.”
My parents were born in the beginning of the Showa Era, so they actually experienced many hardships, with no food amongst the ruins of the war and so they rebuilt their lives. But even with that kind of experience they forgot about the values of a stable daily life and even borrowed money to invest in the stock market because they wanted more. I can’t understand why they did it, but I do know the weakness of humans. When I was handling our family problems, my good friends were helping me through the night to prepare the documents and calculate the numbers and they encouraged me and helped me organize everything. It’s just like the expression “Adversity is the best testing ground for moral stamina”. So I noticed that my dream is not just mine and time is not a problem as long as I have someone that believes in me then I have to do it. My courage was drawn out by this experience.
—— What’s the reason you choose San Diego to do your research?
I reenrolled in school in October, which was my second year of graduate school. Before I reenrolled
I met Prof. Tytler and worked with him on researching the universe. He is also my current boss. He was visiting Kyoto for an international conference and the next year he spent half a year in Tokyo as a visiting professor from UCSD at the National Astronomical Observatory in Mitaka. So I had the chance to start working with him. One day after I submitted a 700-page document to the courts, Prof. Tytler, who knew about my situation said to me, “You’ll never understand the real value of things until you start from zero. The time for you to get to know the real value of things has just started.” Indeed it was true for everything, shelter, clothes, food, and your health. As far as the research goes, I proposed one of my ideas to my Japanese Prof. and he kicked my idea and said, “I don’t know why you think it is interesting.” But on the other hand when I told Prof. Tytler of the same idea he said, “That’s very interesting, let’s submit it to NASA immediately.” After that we drew up the project and submitted it and it was funded. Following that it was Prof. Tytler who helped to recruit me to come to UCSD. So I came to San Diego in the summer of 1999.
—— If you didn’t choose to be a researcher what kind of life would you have had?
I think I would have probably been involved in pyrotechnics. Ever since I was a child every year I would watch the fireworks at the Sumida River. Probably because of that I loved watching fireworks and seeing them launched into the sky. I seriously thought that if I didn’t pass the entrance exam for graduate school that I would work in pyrotechnics. That’s how much I liked fireworks. In fact the research I’m doing now is deeply connected with fireworks. For example, when you see the red color in fireworks it is caused by strontium, the green color is a result of barium, and if it’s blue it is because copper was burning, because there is a 1:1 correspondence between color and chemical element. The reason we know elements exist 10 billion light years away in the universe is because we are looking at their colors. In other words, we are using the same principles to measure the existence of the elements in the universe. Fireworks and stars... it seems like shinny things are my favorite (laughing). Oh... I also like fireflies, so I had them lay eggs and then raised them from eggs, to larvae, and then to imago. The larvae and the eggs of the fireflies also shine and that’s really amazing, don’t you think?!
—— Tell us about your dreams and the future of the universe.
Last year the Professor Emeritus of the University of Tokyo, Masatoshi Koshiba was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for observing Neutrino, one of the elementary particles, from space. We think there are even more undiscovered particles that exist in the universe. We know they are right here, passing through our bodies right now. It is called “dark matter”, which has 10 times more mass than that of usual matter, but it has not been observed yet. We would like to know the true identity of this unknown matter. We also wish to ascertain the origin of “dark energy”, the mysterious energy that accelerates the expansion of the universe. We need to build a brand new physics to understand these fundamental mysteries. The next generation extremely large telescopes are also scheduled to be built in the next 15-30 years, and we are really looking forward to searching for planets outside of this solar system. When these telescopes are built we believe that we will be able to confirm life on other planets. They will allow us to study the environments of extra solar planets and we believe that day is coming.
As a matter of fact, last year on September 11th on the morning before I boarded my flight to San Jose from San Diego to make some observations, the terrorist attack occurred. It was a large disaster for mankind, but it had absolutely no impact on the movement of the universe. Everything was the same as usual and the Earth was spinning and the stars were shining. So with that complicated
feeling, that day became a long day, which changed my view on life.
This is the 150th year anniversary of Com. Perry’s visit to Japan. The man of foresight, Kaishu Katsu and his apprentice, Ryoma Sakamoto, had realized it was not time for civil war when the curtain was lifted. In the last days of the Samurai era, they moved forward and made their people, who were divided and fighting each other, realized that Japan in fact belongs to one nation. They dedicated their lives to build the one new nation. When people look to the universe, they would feel the same way that we are in fact living in and sharing with one world. I believe it is that realization which brings the world together. Our true mission is not making precise calculations, but to use our wisdom with the aim toward advancing future civilizations.
My dream is to see that all people, Europeans, Americans, Asians, Arabs, including Iraqis and Palestinians, who are caught up in the whirlpool of dispute, can use their intelligence and work together in a way that 50 years from now will cross borders. Through this joint effort they can tackle the mysteries of the universe, of life, and find life on other planets, besides earth. I hope 500 years from now people will find intelligent life in this Galaxy, and 5000 years later I’m dreaming that we will be able to meet the intelligent extraterrestrial life form here on the Earth. On the beautiful green hill, in front of the blue ocean, we will talk about our history and life, and join together to tackle the mysteries of the origins of the universe. Several thousand years later, people will know whether our work, calculations, and thinking, was right or wrong when they discuss the beginning of the universe with the intelligent life from other planets who should have another answer as well. I’m really looking forward to that day when it comes. It doesn’t matter if they have a different way of expression or calculation, I am sure that the intelligent E.T. must come to the same conclusions as we have, because we all live in the same one universe...