Breaking through the frontiers of science

Leo Esaki

By Leo Esaki I would like to put the hands of the clock back 71 years and talk about an incident during the war when I was a student of Tokyo Imperial University.

On the evening of March 9 and early the next morning, March 10, 1945, Tokyo suffered a horrendous incendiary bomb attack. There were nearly 1 million victims. I was bombed out of my lodgings but, fortunately, I was able to rescue most of my personal belongings. Although almost everyone had spent the night sleepless, at the university, Prof. Tsutomu Tanaka, surprisingly, began to teach his course of classes on experimental physics at 8 a.m. sharp as though nothing had happened.

We were forcibly immersed in the world of physics, leaving the human calamity outside.

We were taught that learning had to be a top priority, no matter what happened. It was then we realized how awesome the academicism of Tokyo Imperial University was. This teaching appears to have had a significant influence on my approach to research throughout my life. As a matter of fact, I turned 20 just two days after the bombing, on March 12.

There is a tendency, especially in stable societies, to assume that the future is simply a natural extension of the past and the present. However, in periods of great change, innovations and breakthroughs shape and form the future. Needless to say, it is the power of individual creativity that plays the decisive role in this process. The power of the human mind can be divided into two categories:

Judicious Mind: This allows us to analyze and understand, and to select and make fair judgments.

Creative Mind: This allows us to pinpoint core issues and create new ideas through the power of imagination and perceptiveness.

For example, let us say we work from the age of 20 to 70 and, on a scale of 0 percent to 100 percent, the creative mind is at 100 percent at the age of 20 and decreases with age to reach 0 percent at the age of 70. Meanwhile, the judicious mind is at 0 percent at the age of 20 and increases with age to reach 100 percent at the age of 70. Given these conditions, the declining creative mind and the rising judicious mind will become equal when they intersect at the age of about 45. On the one hand, if the two minds are in conflict with each other at that time, a middle-aged crisis will be brought about. On the other hand, if the two minds are in harmony with each other, that point in time will be the zenith of life.

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  • Leo Esaki

Since the creative mind must play an important role in research, most Nobel laureates in the sciences have done their prizewinning work below 45 years of age. I discovered the Esaki diode at the age of 32 in Tokyo and invented man-made superlattices at the age of 44 in New York. Albert Einstein undertook three significant studies, the special theory of relativity, the photon theory of light, and the theory of Brownian motion, at the age of 26 in Zurich.

If you believe the dogma shown in the chart, we should encourage young people to initiate more creative work independently.

Apparently, governments tend to support individuals who have already achieved success.

I would now like to introduce a list of “five don’ts,” which anyone with an interest in realizing his or her creative potential should follow. Who knows, it may even help an enthusiastic researcher to win a Nobel Prize.

Rule No. 1: Don’t allow yourself to be trapped by your past experiences. Don’t hold on to your preconceived notions. If you allow yourself to get caught up in social conventions or circumstances, you will not notice the opportunity for a dramatic leap forward when it presents itself. You should be a free spirit.

As mentioned before, most laureates have received the Nobel Prize for work done during their younger days. The point that I am trying to make is that, because of their candor, younger people are able to look at things with a clearer vision, one that is unclouded by social conventions and past history.

Rule No. 2: Don’t allow yourself to become overly attached to any one authority in your field — the great professor, perhaps. By becoming too closely involved with the great professor, you risk losing sight of yourself and forfeiting the free spirit of youth. Although the great professor may be awarded the Nobel Prize, it is unlikely that subordinate researchers will ever receive it.

Rule No. 3: Don’t hold on to what you don’t need. The information-oriented society facilitates easy access to an enormous amount of information, but the brain can be compared to a personal computer with an energy consumption of about 25 watts only. In terms of memory capacity or computing speed, the human brain has not really changed much since ancient times.

Therefore we must constantly be inputting and deleting information, and we should save only truly vital and relevant information. As the president of a university, I have opportunities to meet with many people and to exchange meishi name cards with them. I try to discard the name cards as soon as possible, so that I always leave maximum memory space open. I’m kidding, of course.

Rule No. 4: Don’t avoid confrontation. I myself became embroiled many years ago in a dispute with the company where I was working. At times, it is necessary to put yourself first and to defend your own position. My point is that fighting in self-defense is sometimes unavoidable.

Rule No. 5: Don’t forget your spirit of childhood curiosity. It is the most vital component of imagination.

Finally, having listed the five rules, let me say that they do not constitute sufficient conditions for success. They are merely suggested guidelines.

■Leo Esaki

Born in 1925 in Osaka Prefecture, he graduated from Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo). After working at Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (now Sony Corp.) and IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in New York, he became president at the University of Tsukuba and in 2006 assumed his current post as president of Yokohama College of Pharmacy. In 1973, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the Esaki diode. He also serves as chairman of the Science and Technology Promotion Foundation of Ibaraki.Speech

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