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Culture and Education

The Nobel Prize: Its History and Spirit

Keita Koyama Ph.D., Professor,
Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

It was a banner Nobel year for Japan last year. It was an exceptional feat that Japanese both captured the Nobel Prize for Physics, and we also shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The Nobel Prize, of course, is not awarded to a nation, but rather to individuals in honor of their remarkable contributions to society. The fruits of these individual scientific studies, however, transcend all geographical and physical borders to be universally shared as intellectual assets for all in the global community. Nevertheless, many Japanese people felt a deep sense of pride about the truly laudable achievements of these scientists, their fellow citizens. The special features, extra editions, and abundant coverage in all of the mass media are evidence of the significant impact that the attainment of these venerable Nobel Prizes has had on society.

Today, there are a number of international scholarly awards other than the Nobel Prize. However, the Nobel Prize is unparalleled in terms of its infinitely higher reputation and the depth of regard with which it is held by scholars, scientists, and laypersons alike. There are no comparable awards-in science, sports, art, or any other field-by which people throughout the world accord such deep respect to laureates with a common sense of values and recognition.

Alfred Nobel: the Prescient Founder

In order to appreciate how the Nobel Prize has achieved such great glory and prestige, we need to reflect on its historical background.

The first thing to consider is the foresight and resolute conviction of Nobel Prize Founder, Alfred Nobel. In his will, Nobel explicitly required that "the prize be awarded to those who made the most important contributions, regardless of their nationality, or whether they are from Scandinavia or not." The 19th century, when he wrote the will, was still an age of overwhelming western dominance as well as rampant racism and nationalism. It was in the face of this prevalent arrogance and bias that Nobel stridently required that Nobel Prize winners be selected based solely on their performance. Such an egalitarian stance may be taken for granted in today's society, but it was a prescient and ground breaking proposal when Nobel made it-over a century ago.

The first Japanese laureate is Hideki Yukawa, who was awarded the Prize for Physics in 1949. At that time, Japan was not yet recognized as having returned to being a full member of the international community. The fact that Yukawa was able to overcome this obstacle and win the first Nobel Prize for a Japanese person was a testament to the vitality of Nobel's wish. In addition, Shibasaburo Kitazato had already earned recognition as a candidate for the first Prize for Medicine in 1901, although he did not ultimately win the prize. Kitazato's distinction is further evidence that Nobel was ahead of his time.

Brilliant Scientists Illuminate the Prize

The Nobel Prize was first awarded at the turn of the century, in 1901, when the world of science, particularly in the field of physics, was in an era of significant transition. The establishment of the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and other new theoretical systems marked the dawn of an age of rapid progress in research and an ever deeper and clearer understanding of life and space.

Flourishing in this vibrant new age, geniuses emerged one after another in a virtuous circle of great historical scientific discovery. Although genius and great discovery can be found in all ages, the concentration of brilliant minds and landmark achievement surrounding the foundation of the Nobel Prize is unmatched.

As a result, the Nobel Prize had a host of illustrious laureates from its inception. In fact, the first prizes were awarded to German Physicist Wilhelm Conrad R旦ntgen (Physics), Dutch Physical Chemist Jacobus Hendricus van't Hoff (Chemistry), and German Physicist Emil von Behring (Medicine). The tradition of excellence among Nobel Prize laureates has continued ever since, recognizing such history makers as Madame Curie, Arrhenius, Pavlov, Koch, Marconi, Rutherford, Planck, Einstein and many others who have become household names.

From this historical perspective, we can see that these eminent scientists established the tradition of the Nobel Prize as an unparalleled mark of distinction from its infancy. In short, although the Nobel Prize currently bestows honor and authority to its laureates, it is the groundbreaking work and brilliant minds of the early laureates which elevated the prize up to its commanding heights at the turn of the century. This is the second factor behind the Nobel Prize's unique presence.

The Nobel Prize raison d'棚tre: from a perspective on the history of physics

I published a short work entitled History of Physics [Butsurigaku-shi] (Shokabo Publishing Co., Ltd.) last year, which comprises a comprehensive history of physics, from the advent of Newtonian mechanics to the forefront of modern studies. As in any scholarly field, the more recent history is, the more difficult it is to treat comprehensively. This difficulty arises from the lack of rigorous historical assessment-possible only over time-and also because science tends to be segmented as it progresses, making it difficult to comprehend taken as a whole.

Accordingly, my book adopted the Nobel Prize as a framework for viewing the history of physics, and I believe it accurately depicts the course of physics in the 20th century. By tracing past laureates and their work-for which the prize was awarded based on fair, impartial, and appropriate criteria-the book draws a precise outline of 20th century physics. This role and function of the Nobel Prize will doubtless remain over the 21st century, and as such, the Nobel Prize will continue to embody the excellence and progress of the age. Clearly, then, the raison d'棚tre of the prize is profound.

Finally, let me say as a "Wasedanian": with more than a century and a quarter of tradition, we at Waseda continue in our commitment to excellence and to earning the finest reputation by domestic as well as international standards. There is nothing that would give me more satisfaction than to know that in our relentless pursuit of excellence, Waseda research-whether conducted by graduates, or by current students-produced results that earned a Nobel Prize. To realize this lofty aim, it is urgent that we foster the very best environment for university research, and that we redouble our efforts to establish a superior research support system. If we truly wish to take our place among the world's leading research universities, we must clearly show our determination and demonstrate this resolve through significant and tangible results.

Keita Koyama, Professor,
Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Born in Kanagawa, in 1948, Professor Koyama graduated from the School of Science and Engineering at Waseda University in 1971.

He is currently a professor on the Faculty of Social Sciences at Waseda University and holds a Ph.D. in Science.

Primary Works
Time-Line of Science History [Kagaku-shi nenpyo], Lives of Dilettante Scientists [Douraku kagakusha retsuden], Physics as seen by Soseki [Soseki ga mita butsurigaku] (thus far Chuko Shinsho), Has God Rolled the Dice? [Kamisama wa saikoro asobi wo shitaka], Soseki and Warm Science [Soseki to atatakana kagaku], Faraday [Faradei] (thus far Kodansha Gakujutsu Bunko), Genius Scientists in Cambridge [Kenburijji no tensai kagakusha tachi] (Shincho Sensho), Scientists in a Portrait [Shouzouga no naka no kagakusha] (Bunshun Shinsho), Talking about the 20th Century Physics from the Viewpoint of the Nobel Prize [Noberu-shou de kataru 20-seiki butsurigaku], Talking about Modern Physics from the Viewpoint of Light [Hikari de kataru gendai butsurigaku], Why Do Scientists Seek to Arrive First? [Kagakusha wa naze ichiban-nori wo mezasuka] (thus far Kodansha Blue Backs), Agora of Physics [Butsurigaku no hiroba], Newton's Secret Box [Nyuton no himitsu no hako], Literary Calendar of Science [Kagaku saijiki], Scientists with a Different Face [Ibou no kagakusha] (thus far Maruzen), The Thought and History of Science [Kagaku no shisou to ayumi] (Gakujutu Tosho), Talking about Modern Physics from the Viewpoint of Perpetual Motion Machines [Eikyuu kikan de kataru gendai butsurigaku] (Chikuma Shobo), etc.