Hiroshima Memo: Nobel Prize-winning scientist with strong anti-war resolve

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

A good-natured old man who loves, and is loved by, his three grandchildren. This was my impression when I first met Dr. Toshihide Maskawa, 71, in his office at Kyoto Sangyo University at the end of last month. Although Dr. Maskawa is a world-renowned theoretical physicist and a Nobel Prize laureate in physics, the childlike quality of unpretentious manner and warm personality make him an affable person despite his formidable reputation.

Intrigued by the work of Dr. Shoichi Sakata (1911-1970), Dr. Maskawa studied theoretical physics as a graduate student at Nagoya University. Among the researchers of Dr. Sakata’s research laboratory, Dr. Maskawa was well known for his contentious nature and was dubbed “Maskawa the Objection Raiser.” Whenever he found something he questioned or could not understand, he did not hesitate to pick an argument even with senior researchers. “I sometimes got on people’s bad side, but Dr. Sakata thought a non-authoritarian atmosphere was vital for our research,” recalled Dr. Maskawa nostalgically.

Dr. Sakata also taught him to be concerned, as a scientist, about social problems. Dr. Maskawa took a post at Kyoto University in 1970 and, while working day and night to unlock the mysteries of the fundamental particles of the universe, he was always active as a leader of the faculty and staff union of the university.

“I would spend the morning engaged in research and the afternoon working for the union. After dinner I spent some time with my family. Then, from around 9 p.m. to midnight I returned to my research. Having a variety of other activities in between your work helps that work to go more efficiently,” explained Dr. Maskawa, as if such a lifestyle was a simple matter. His sense of being an ordinary citizen, as well as his quick mind and extraordinary creativity, allowed him to achieve his aims.

As a person with such views, he has expressed his beliefs on war and peace. Dr. Maskawa said, “Great theoretical physicists in and out of Japan, including Dr. Einstein, have warned the world to prevent nuclear war. The importance of this moves me to convey to others what we need to live peaceful lives and prevent and abolish war.” He developed these beliefs based on his experience of an air raid on Nagoya that he experienced during World War II when he was 5 years old.

When I asked him to autograph my copy of his book, he wrote the term “Philosophia” in Greek, which originally denoted “love of thinking” and became the word “philosophy” in English.

He cherishes the motto “beloved wisdom.” When I mentioned to him that there is also a type of wisdom which is not beloved, he replied, “Yes, that's certainly true, and scientists must be careful not to seek out that type of wisdom.”

Dr. Maskawa will continue to fill two roles, working as a researcher in his specialized field and as a proponent of peace.

(Originally published on March 7, 2011)

Related article
Interview with Nobel Prize laureate Toshihide Maskawa (March 7, 2011)

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