Live Locally, Grow Globally

What's NEW

Curiosity Common to Humankind -- Elucidating the Evolution of Life from the Dawn of Time to the Birth of the Solar System

Elucidating the Evolution of the Solar System from Micro Substances and Trace Elements

HIRANO I was looking forward to talking with the two of you about the universe. You are still in your 40s, but you both have a lot of potential. Professor Terada, you are involved in the analysis of moon rocks brought by Apollo 15 in 1971 and particles of asteroid Itokawa taken from Hayabusa which returned to the earth in 2010. You are also engaged in joint research with NASA, JAXA, and the Institute of Planetology, Münster, Germany, aren’t you?

TERADA I’m involved in geochronological research to clarify the origin and evolution of planets, including the solar system, the earth, and the moon, through an isotope microscope. With the isotope microscope, one can observe the composition distribution of isotope in extraterrestrial matter such as meteors and Apollo samples in three dimensions. This device was developed based on research results at Osaka University School of Science in the 1970s. When examining the isotope rate of trace elements in a micro substance, the origin of the substance can be uncovered. For example, stones around us always include a small amount of uranium, a radioactive element. It changes to lead, an element, which is called radioactive decay. Analyzing the uranium-lead ratio by isotope microscope can determine the age of a stone.

HIRANO Is it possible to go back to the evolution of the solar system by examining meteors by isotope microscope?

TERADA It is estimated that the formation of the solar system started about 4.6 billion years ago. However, very tiny circumstellar dust produced by nucleosynthesis of supernova explosion before the formation of the solar system still remain in primitive meteorites. If an isotope microscope with higher space resolution than the current level is developed, we can trace the evolution of the universe, 1 to 2 billion years ago before the birth of the solar system, or 6 to 7 billion years ago from now. My research style is observing the universe not through telescope but through observing trace elements by microscope. I want to elucidate the origin of elements which form our body and the chemical evolution of the solar system by examining the composition of meteorites and establishing astronomical chronology from a physical viewpoint.

HIRANO  Professor Terada, what drove you to conduct such research?

TERADA Actually, I was not an astronomy fanatic as a child. In physics class at senior high school, I was very impressed with the universality and diversity of the solar system, i.e., the movement of planets with different weight and size can be represented by a universal law of gravitation, F=ma. (Kepler's laws of planetary motion) which drove me to learn physics.

Understanding the Structure of the Universe in Simulation

 HIRANO Professor Nagamine, you studied astrophysics at Princeton University and Harvard University in the U.S. for 17 years from a cosmological perspective. You have been examining the formation of supermassive black holes and galaxies, haven’t you?

NAGAMINE  Just after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, the rapid inflation of the universe took place and hundreds of millions of years later, the first star, or the galaxy, was born. And then physical phenomenon under extreme situations, such as the explosion of supernovas, the evolution of elements, and the formation of black holes, occurred, and the universe's structural formation is still underway.
I’m involved in research to see the history of structural formation and galaxy formation over 13.8 billion years from a cosmological viewpoint, kind of like performing archaeological research on the universe.

My research covers the universe as a whole, so in that sense, my research is at the other end of the spectrum from Professor Terada’s research, which focuses on micro elements. Looking at the density of cosmic background radiation (microwaves from all direction of the universe), which is the foundation of the Big Bang inflation universe theory, there are some subtle fluctuations in almost unified density.
If one analyzes these fluctuations statistically, cosmological parameters can be determined, which will lead to the clarification of the process of how the seed of the large-scale structure of the universe, galaxies, and supermassive black holes was made.

HIRANO What are fluctuations in cosmic background radiation?

NAGAMINE   Just after the Big Bang, the universe was full of plasma of ultra-high density and temperature. Then, the whole universe cooled down and various structures were generated.
At one moment, fragmented electrons integrated with protons and the universe became neutral, which allowed lights to fly straight without being blocked by electrons. We are looking at the universe of 380,000 light years after the Big Bang through the cosmic background radiation. [Note: Cosmic background radiation is radiation left over from the early development of the universe, and is landmark proof of the Big Bang theory.]

From the statistical observation, it is found that the allocation of energy in the universe is, if all energy is 100, roughly 70 percent of the universe is made up of dark energy. Matter makes up the rest, but most of which is made of dark matter, a mysterious thing whose existence is only confirmed through mutual gravitational interaction with surrounding matter, which is indirectly known.
It is also known that the formation of galaxies needs both elements accounting for 4 percent of the universe which Professor Terada researches and dark matter.

Currently, the Hubble Space Telescope going around the track some 600km above the ground observes the part of the universe and it has become possible to observe distant galaxies which were created hundreds of millions years after the birth of the universe. Through looking at the young universe, I want to pursue the evolution of the universe like a journey in a time machine. I want to understand the structure of the universe in a unified framework.

HIRANO Are galaxies generated in places where the density of dark matter is high?

NAGAMINE  It seems that the structure of the universe is made by dark matter. I try to reproduce the structure of the universe and the formation of the galaxy by dark matter on simulation by using a supercomputer while solving the law of gravity and fluid dynamics. In the beginning, the universe is relatively flat, but as time goes by, dark matter grows unevenly due to its gravity, starts to condense, and forms the galaxy little by little.
This means we can follow the formation of large-scale structure of the cosmos and galaxies by calculating gravitational interaction of dark matter and fluid dynamics of gases. Now the structure of galaxies in the universe can be reproduced on a computer. So I try to understand diversity in galaxies in an integrated way: galaxies with different structures such as spiral and ellipse are formed at different times.

HIRANO What does make differences in shape of galaxy made of dark matter or gas?

NAGAMINE  Different effects such as supernova feedback seem to influence on the formation of galaxies, but details have been unknown. Furthermore, in each galaxy, there are supermassive black holes with a very high mass and grow mutually interacting with the galaxy.
We try to pursue supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and their co-evolution with the host galaxy in the International Joint Research Promotion Program adopted in 2013. (For more information, click here.) It will become possible to predict the future based on a theory through such projects. If the current cosmological theory model is correct, the universe is increasingly inflating so the nearby galaxy will travel away from us and, in a few hundreds of million years, there will be no galaxies around us and we will be isolated as an island universe – we may see such days.

HIRANO  Professor Nagamine, what led you to be involved in such research?

NAGAMINE  I was interested in the universe when I was an elementary school student. At first, I wanted to be involved in space development or become an astronaut. When I was a senior high school student, I came across Einstein's theory of relativity. I knew that it was possible to theoretically think about the whole universe as a practical science, and I was devoted to theoretical physics. After I enrolled in graduate school, I learned that various structures of the universe could be understood theoretically and started to address the interdisciplinary fields of astronomy and physics.

Addressing Research on the Universe in Order to Fulfill Humankind’s Curiosity

HIRANO On what occasions do you find pleasure and fun in conducting research?

TERADA I examined the moon meteorites that had fallen on the earth and found that the dark part on the moon, which looked like rabbits to the Japanese, was generated during volcanic activities on the moon 4.35 billion years ago. That was more than 400 million years older than the established theory estimated based on research of the moon samples brought by Apollo.

My thesis was published on the science magazine Nature in 2007. Different countries’ perspectives of the moon were reflected into the headline of the article about my thesis, which was very interesting. In Japan, the article was introduced with the headline of “Rabbits on the Moon are 4.35 Billion Years Old?!” In France, the headline was “The Man on the Moon is 4 Billion Years Old.” In Romania, it was “The Face of the Moon Aged 4.35 Billion Years Old.” It showed me that the moon was loved by everyone, even beyond national borders.

NAGAMINE  While I am writing my thesis, I have moments when I think that I am the only person who knows this may be happening somewhere in the universe. It may be a small gratification, but this is the moment when I think it was good that I became a scientist and I’m very happy. People think that theoretical physics is a hard science dealing with a lot of formulas, but just like Einstein had a hard time advocating the theory of relativity, there are many untold stories hiding.

HIRANO In recent years, there is a trend that a priority is placed on science and technology that directly give back to society. What approach are you taking to your research?

TERADA Curiosity is a driving force for my research. However, I think the mystery of “where living things like humans came from and where they are going” inspires people’s curiosity. That’s why I think I’m conducting research on behalf of humankind.
I don’t think we need to give something back to society in a practical way, and it is the strength of comprehensive universities to be allowed to do so. Of course, when high schools, science museums, or city halls ask me to give a lecture, I try to speak to them about how much the universe has been clarified as much as possible every time I get a chance.

NAGAMINE   I think scholarship that looks useless at present should be recognized. No one knew what the theory of relativity was useful for at that time. However, some 100 years later, now, for example, that theory is applied to detect location by GPS. I don’t know if our research will be helpful any time soon, but it may be of great value in 100 years.

HIRANO I agree with you. Promoting science and technology useful for the development of humankind is very important as national strategies. On the other hand, humans have intellectual curiosity, so they are not satisfied with just food, clothing, and shelter. They can’t lead a spiritually rich life if their curiosity is not satisfied.
Like music and drawings, scholarship is also quite romantic; it allows people to dream. Hayabusa brought back particles of the asteroid Itokawa, which has academic significance, but people didn’t make a fuss over it for that fact alone. I think they were moved by romance brought about by Hayabusa. In that sense, making others happy while pursuing my curiosity is the happiest thing as a researcher.

NAGAMINE  Professor Terada’s research may lead to benefits for humans in the future. When humans go to the moon to get resources, it may be possible to identify places to dig desired elements. By some chance or other, people may be able to find a technology for taking energy from dark matter. I believe that earth and space science will lead to benefits for all humankind through an accumulation of achievements some time in the future.

Promoting Research in ‘International Collaboration’ and ‘International Competition’

HIRANO You are active on the world stage in your own way. What do you think about competing with the best researchers in the world?

TERADA Since subjects for our research are samples taken in the Apollo and Hayabusa programs, we need to be globalized. This research is conducted in the form of international collaboration or international competition with research institutes around the world.
My laboratory in my previous university where I developed a unique machine attracted many researchers in the world. I’d like to reproduce that in this Earth and Space Science Laboratory. I think students who learn each other in an environment of international collaboration and international competition will naturally acquire a sense of globalization.

NAGAMINE  I think balancing is difficult. If I try to work on a cutting-edge research project, I’m going to compete with researchers around the world and I need to envision research trends. However, Japan, an island nation away from the rest of the world, is at a geographical disadvantage. Are we going to conduct unique research by using such a disadvantage in an underhanded fashion, or will we work according to world trends?
I’d like to explore our path while pursuing a uniqueness so as not to join the technology bandwagon and make our research common research through globalization.

HIRANO I'm sure Professor Terada will win in world competition in his unique research on enhancing the resolution of the isotope microscope, but it may be difficult for Professor Nagamine to demonstrate his individuality.
In biology, my specialty, living things are subjected to study and the way of conducting research varies by person. Therefore, in one way, it’s easy to demonstrate researchers’ individuality. Such being the case, there is another difficulty: the possibility of getting a universal compliment is low. Now, for something completely different, do you have anything to say to students from a viewpoint of cultivation of human resources?

TERADA I want Osaka University students to pick themselves up. I wonder why they don’t want to stand out within their social circle. Building a wall by themselves is a waste. We, the faculty members, may need to actively appeal the fun of research, scholarship, and the frontier spirit.

NAGAMINE  I want them to be more aggressive and more actively take the initiative. There are times when no one asks me any questions in a 90-minute class. That’s really disappointing. But they watch the faculty carefully, so if given a good example, they will understand us and follow us. I want to make efforts to lead them in the right direction.

HIRANO  It was nice talking with you. On a final note, please tell me a bit about your dreams.

NAGAMINE   Science in the 20th century adopted the principle of reductionism: it tried to understand a complicated thing by breaking it down into components and understanding individual components as in the case of the grand unification theory of elementary particles. However, science in the 21st century begins to pay attention to the opposite direction. In the world of complex system and universe physics as well, the presence of various planets and galaxies is being recognized. How much can we understand diversity in planet and galaxy by using an integrated theory? This will be an important issue in the future.

TERADA I’m handling matter, or elements. So I want to follow the flow from the synthesis of an element, to the formation of the solar system and earth, to the birth of life. I want to continue my research in a neat, chronological order. The birth of life is an ultimate research subject to humankind and I think it’s impossible to clarify it in my lifetime, but I want to make a big trend towards it.

HIRANO The two of you seem to be on the right track. I think you have a great deal of confidence as researchers performing world-class research. Osaka University aspires to become one of the world's top 10 research on our 100th anniversary in 2031. I ‘m happy that I can count on you to do great things. I wish you further success.

For Intellectual Curiosity and contribution to Humankind -- Comments from President HIRANO after the Talk

Scholarship fulfills the intellectual curiosity of researchers themselves as well as people around the world, and it has a great potential of being helpful in the future. Osaka University aspires to become one of the world's top 10 research universities by our 100th anniversary in 2031 because we have a strong belief in humankind’s future.
Diversity in race, language, and politics on the earth is essential for the development of a spiritually affluent human society. However, conflicts caused by diversity also occasionally bring about negative results to humankind’s future.
Scholarship, along with art, sports and economic activities, is a kind of language common to all humankind and has a great power to enable people around the world to communicate beyond differences in thought and religion. This is a great role that universities in the 21st century should play.

TERADA Kentaro
Born in 1966, Dr. Terada graduated from the Department of Physics at Osaka University School of Science in 1989 and completed the Department of Physics at the Graduate School of Science of the same university in 1994. At Hiroshima University School of Science, he became an assistant in 1994, an associate professor in 2006, and a professor in 2010. He took his current position as a professor at Osaka University's Graduate School of Science in April 2012. He won the Commendation for Science and Technology by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in 2011.

NAGAMINE Kentaro
Born in 1973, Dr. Nagamine graduated from the Department of Physics at The University of Tokyo in 1996. He completed the Department of Physics at Princeton University School of Science in 2001. He became a post-doc researcher at the Harvard University Department of Astronomy in 2001 and University of California, San Diego in 2004. He became an assistant professor at the Department of Physics & Astronomy of University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2006 and associate professor at the same school in 2011. He took his current position as a professor at Osaka University's Graduate School of Science in June 2013.

HIRANO Toshio
A graduate of Osaka University's Faculty of Medicine in 1972, President HIRANO studied at NIH (U.S.) from 1973 through 1976. He became an assistant professor at Kumamoto University in 1980. He then became an assistant professor in 1984 and a professor in 1989 at Osaka University. Following that, he became the director of the Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences in 2004, and a director of the Graduate School of Medicine and the dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 2008. He assumed the the 17th presidency of Osaka University in August 2011. He served as Chairman for the Japan Society for Immunology from 2005 to 2006. He is also a member of the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation and The Science Council of Japan. He has a doctoral degree of medicine. His awards include the Sandoz Prize for Immunology, Osaka Science Prize, Academic Award of the Mochida Memorial Foundation, Medical Award, Fujiwara Prize, Crafoord Prize, Japan Prize, and Medal with Purple Ribbon by the Emperor of Japan.

Back to top