|PRIZE WINNER: Masatoshi Koshiba ’55 (PhD).|
When Masatoshi Koshiba ’55 (PhD) returned to his Tokyo home after a daylong media frenzy triggered by the announcement that he had won the Nobel Prize in physics, even his closest relatives began to treat him differently.
As family members offered the 76-year-old formal congratulations, the professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo says his casual replies let them know he was the same person he was before being cited for science’s highest honor for his work to detect the elusive subatomic particles known as neutrinos.
"It seems as if everyone thinks of the Nobel Prize as being something very special," he says nonchalantly. "(In 2000) I got the Wolf Prize and I thought this would be the same kind of thing— just another award."
Koshiba, who is the fifth Rochester alumnus to win a Nobel Prize and the eighth laureate with ties to Rochester, has come to realize that the Nobel is not "just another award."
Since the October announcement that he would share one half of the 2002 physics prize with American scientist Raymond Davis Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania (a third scientist, Riccardo Giacconi, of the American Associated Universities Inc., won the other half), for “pioneering contributions to astrophysics, in particular for the detection of cosmic neutrinos,” Koshiba has been cast by Japanese media as a national hero whose lunch calendar now includes dates with the prime minister.
Facing the press in a classroom at the prestigious University of Tokyo shortly after the announcement, Koshiba told reporters that since the phone call notifying him that he had won he had only managed to grab four hours of sleep.
"I’m feeling tired, but my joyous feeling continues," he said. Surprised by the reaction of the press and public to his award, he commented that, "the response has been much greater than I imagined."
Kevin McFarland, associate professor of physics at Rochester, says few people in the world of physics can imagine a more worthy winner of the Nobel Prize than Koshiba.
Credited with designing and carrying out experiments to detect the existence of neutrinos, Koshiba spearheaded the development of the Kamiokande detector, a massive underground facility located in an abandoned mine. The detector’s water-filled apparatus is designed to catch neutrinos as they are emitted from the sun.
"Technically, the experiment was a tour de force," says McFarland. "The impact of the measurements that were made spawned two major fields of neutrino physics and played a significant role in a third."
In particular, McFarland says, the Kamiokande measurements have added to the hypothesis that a fundamental property of neutrinos can spontaneously change as the particles make their way from the sun to the earth, a fruitful finding that has implications for the holy grail of physics, the grand unified theory.
Susumu Okubo, professor emeritus of physics at Rochester who roomed with Koshiba when they were both doctoral students in the College, says he doubts his friend could have achieved such success if he had remained in the United States. At the time, most American high-energy physicists were interested in building large accelerators to study how particles interact.
"His proposal for a non-accelerator facility in this country would surely have been rejected," Okubo says. "This is a testimony to his far-sightedness. He was way in advance of his time."
The initial Kamiokande project, which began in 1983, cost 400 million yen ($3.2 million) and utilized 4,500 tons of water in its main, 50,000-ton Cerenkov detector. The observatory first detected neutrinos from a supernova explosion in 1987 and a year later observed solar neutrinos for the first time. The original facility was superseded by the Super Kamiokande observatory, which was completed in 1995. During experiments conducted in 1998, the facility, which is part of University of Tokyo’s Institute of Cosmic Ray Research, became the world’s first observatory to confirm that neutrinos have mass. Residents of Kamioka, the location of the observatories and the source of their name, celebrated the town’s part in Japan’s third Nobel Prize in as many years—something that pleased Koshiba.
"The people in the town have supported our experiments and been very kind to us," he told reporters. "It is difficult to conduct experiments without local support."
Born in Toyohashi in central Japan in 1926, Koshiba graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1951 and earned his Ph.D. in physics from Rochester four years later. In 1970 he became professor of physics at his alma mater until 1987 when he "retired."
For the next decade he was a professor at Tokai University, and he continues to work as a senior counselor at the International Center for Elementary Particle Physics. Koshiba was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit in 1997 and an award from the Japanese Academy in 1989. In 2000, he returned to Rochester to receive the Distinguished Scholar Award.
One of two Japanese Nobelists in 2002—the other is Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corporation, who won a share of the chemistry prize—Koshiba himself is taking the award in stride even though he says it has already made him much busier.
Recognizing that in the minds of his fellow citizens and scientists the Nobel is something special, Koshiba makes clear that the prize is a tribute to more than just his personal achievements.
Matt Wilce is a freelance writer living in Tokyo.
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