Japanese Wits at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony
A trick of international friendship exquisitely played at the Nobel lecture

February 02, 2009 Ken ITO

Great news was conveyed throughout the world regarding the fact that the Year 2008 Nobel Physics Prize was given to three Japanese scholars who specialize in the study of elementary particles.

However, the “prank” set at the award ceremony, very rare under these circumstances, is still not well broadcasted, nor known throughout the world.

What was that “prank”? Probably, for the first time in its history, the speech was delivered by the co-author of the joint thesis, not by the prize winner.

The “prankster” was Dr. Yoichiro Nanbu

Dr. Yoichiro Nanbu has been nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Prize since the 1960’s. I received musical education from when I was very young, but ever since I became a teenager, I wanted to major in physics in my university course.

Dr. Nanbu was already a renowned hero at that time, but when I was studying physics at the University of Tokyo, I had the honor to actually meet Dr. Nanbu in a seminar, and got to know that he certainly is a talented man, and openhearted. Twenty years has passed since then, and the Nobel Physics Prize was awarded to Dr. Nanbu at the age of 87, and also to Dr. Kobayashi and Dr. Masukawa.

I learned through the media that Dr. Nanbu would be absent from the award ceremony due to his wife’s ill health, even though he showed some intention to attend it right after the press release was made. But through the Internet, I saw the video of the Nobel lecture and I was surprised to see that there was a “plot,” or to be more precise, a “prank” being set.

The co-author of the thesis mounted the podium


Dr. Nanbu, Professor Emeritus at Chicago University The picture was taken on May 20th, 2008 at the Benjamin Franklin Medal award ceremony.〔AFPBB News

It was surprising for me to learn that the lecture was delivered by Professor Giovanni Jona-Lasinio (La Sapienza University of Rome, Italy), the co-author of the original thesis, “Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking.” Normally, this opportunity is exclusively reserved for the prize winner, but Dr. Nanbu decided to offer this special opportunity to his former assistant, Professor Jona-Lasinio, to give a presentation in the most prestigious and honorable occasion in the world of science. Upon seeing this, I unconsciously screamed out “Aha!”

There were many contributions to this Nobel Physics Prize for the year 2008, from scientists who specialize in this field all over the world, especially from the physicists of Italy and Japan. The theory of Dr. Kobayashi and Dr. Masukawa has a strong link with the works preceded by Professor Nicola Cabibbo of the University of Rome.

Also not to forget to mention, Dr. Jona-Lasinio is the co-author of Dr. Nanbu's work. Coincidentally, 2008 was the year when CERN (Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire) activated the gigantic particle accelerator, known as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider).

Media have mentioned that the Italian Physicists Society was deeply disappointed and had made certain objections to the decision made by the Nobel Prize Committee. Under that circumstance, I heard that Dr. Nanbu would be absent from the ceremony, due to his wife's health condition…

Criticism from around the world was minimized at once

This is purely my guess, but Dr. Nanbu, may have deliberately made a decision to be absent from the award ceremony in Stockholm. Dr. Nanbu set a “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and gave this opportunity to Professor Jona-Lasinio to stand in front of the podium and this has diminished all the dissatisfaction of the physicists of the world.

Professor Jona-Lasinio introduced an interesting episode within this lecture that he faced a similar situation 48 years ago at a large meeting of physicists, known as the Midwestern Conference on Theoretical Physics; to make a presentation as the substitute of Dr. Nanbu. Of course, young Jona-Lasinio asked Dr. Nanbu, how he should do this and the response was “Do it your own way.”

The day before, Dr. Jona-Lasinio sacrificed his sleep time and prepared for the presentation. This certainly is an effective way to make a debut for a young, hopeful scientist. Dr. Jona-Lasinio smiled at the podium, saying “This opportunity also is the same.”

Great work of science is achieved by plural talents, not by just one genius

Science never is advanced by one outstanding genius. Many talented people gather and cooperate in order to make a great discovery, the relation between Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler demonstrates this idea very well.

Especially in the studies of elementary particles, both the research and the experiments have been developed by the contributions of many excellent intellects throughout our history. However, the current system of the Nobel Prize allows only three winners, which does not suit the reality of science. I take this “prank” by Dr. Nanbu as a movement creating commotion in the current circumstances of the Nobel Prize.

At the same time, I strongly admire these dramatic measures taken by Dr. Jona-Lasinio, who supported this “prank” of Dr. Nanbu, and this admiration also goes to the Nobel Foundation for having the consideration to allow such action which never happened in the past.

The work of Dr. Nanbu is known as “Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking,” but I have a strong feeling that Dr. Nanbu restored the shape of the global balance through his gifted sense of humor upon receiving his award.

Extreme economic imbalance and bias prevents economic growth


Dr. Paul Krugman, Professor at Princeton University who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences〔AFPBB News

Dr. Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel sharply points out the realty of economic growth obstructed by several factors including extreme non-equilibrium, and bias, but this critical indication may also be applied to research and development in the fields of science and technology.

As a musician, I have been away from science for quite a long period of time. But I currently introduce this type of “backstage of science” to the media. Unfortunately, most of these writings are in Japanese, but one by one, I am planning to introduce such information internationally.

No lecture made me and all the related scientists more proud than the one delivered for this Nobel Physics Award, which Dr. Nanbu decided not to attend. To me, even though Dr. Nanbu was not there at the ceremony, his consideration and his character definitely was the strongest over all others, which resulted in reaffirming his great excellence.

Yoshiyuki Claude Shimizu (Assistant Editorial)

(>>Japanese version)