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I Want to See the Microscopic World with My Own Eyes!

Happy to be named "Distinguished Professor"

Professor Kawata began the interview talking about the "Distinguished Professor" system. "I was a bit happy at first, when I was named 'distinguished professor.' At university, even if you work hard and get lots of research funding, you aren't praised very often. I think that recognition through awards such as the title of 'distinguished professor' and Presidential Awards for Excellence and Encouragement serve to encourage the large number of professors who are really working hard at OU. I think if the individuals currently at OU continue to work harder, the Osaka University brand will become even stronger. But if I'm going to be honest, I'd rather not have too many more 'distinguished professors,' or else it won't be worth as much anymore," laughed a slightly embarrassed Prof. Kawata.

Today's Part-time is Tomorrow's Full-time

Prof. Kawata's field of study is nanophotonics. During his days as a university student, he thought to himself, "I want to see the microscopic world with my own eyes," which became the impetus for his research. The light we can see with our eyes consists of electromagnetic waves with wavelengths of a few hundred nm (nm = nanometer = 1/1,000,000m). Because of this, we can theoretically only discern objects down to a length of about 200nm using light microscopes, so "common knowledge" at the time was that using electron microscopes was the only way to see objects smaller than that. However, light is made up of photons, which exist simultaneously as both waves and particles. It was Prof. Kawata's research that focused on theses attributes and  made the "ridiculous" prospect of seeing a world of a molecular size of just a few nanometers into a reality. Through this, it became possible to investigate the structure of nanosize objects both in air and in solution.

Opening the door to plasmonics by thinking outside the box

The basis of the "common knowledge" of light microscopes is that with light, lenses can only focus on a spot that is the size of a wavelength. But if you pass light through a nano-sized pinhole, some trickles of light will spill over in tiny light droplets. If you observe these droplets, the "ridiculous" idea of seeing objects of nanometer sizes becomes possible.

However, not much light passes through a nano-sized hole. This is where Prof. Kawata's idea comes to life. "If a hole won't work, why not place down a nano sized screen (metallic needle tip)?" On the metal surface of the needle tip, light turns into a drop-like state called  a plasmon polariton. It's Prof. Kawata's "plasmonics" that researches this phenomenon.

The Raman laser microscope utilizes the attributes of these plasmons to observe objects with lengths as small as 10s of nm. Currently, it is possible to observe a microscopic world of just a few nanometers in size.

Establishing a University Venture

  Even though the Raman laser microscope realized through Prof. Kawata's research is highly necessary, there isn't a market for mass production. Because of this, the product commercialization made very slow progress.  Due to the easing of regulations for starting businesses within the university, Prof. Kawata established Nanophoton Corporation in the Center for Advanced Science and Innovation, Osaka University in 2003. The microscopes developed at Nanophoton can be used without the need for high level manipulation skill, and answered demands from both inside and outside of the university.

8 of the 12 employees of Nanophoton who continue its steady development hold doctorate degrees. But research isn't all that they do; they're also involved in production, management, service and maintenance. The role of this "doctoral employee" carries over into Kashinjuku, supervised by Prof. Kawata.

A Modern-day Tekijuku

Kashinjuku is a place of study where doctors and those who aim to become doctors gather together to cultivate human resources who will widely contribute to the world. The origin of Osaka University, Tekijuku, serves as the model for Kashinjuku. The name also makes reference to SHIBA Ryotaro's Kashin, in which Tekijuku makes an appearance. Just as Tekijuku produced more than just scholars of medicine and Dutch studies, so too does Kashinjuku aim to produce human resources who will both contribute to and have success in the world. He points out that, "the reason why doctors have few places to thrive in the business world is because both companies and the doctors themselves have these wicked fantasies." But doctors are full of both scholarship and the spirit of challenge. So when companies brand doctors as simply being "top-heavy with ideas" and the doctors themselves are convinced that "there's no work for them," they're both wrong. "That's about as absurd as thinking that someone who has a license to drive a tractor trailer can't drive a pickup truck."

A playful spirit

Prof. Kawata's name is also in the Guinness Book of Records for creating the world's smallest man-made object, the "micro-bull," that is smaller than 10 micrometers. This tiny size rivals even that of the red blood cells that flow inside of our body. He recreated the bulge of its muscles, and details like the horn and tail are as small as 50 nm. A comparison of the size of this bull to the size of viruses can be found in 8th grade (2nd year junior high school in Japan) American mathematics textbooks.

As for applications for plasmons, there are full-color 3-dimensional holograms. These holograms use the resonance of plasmons on the surface of thin metal film to take a specific color of light from red, green, and blue and create an "apple of light" in space.

In these kinds of interesting "test runs," Prof. Kawata works with students in the student laboratory using only generic materials. That's Prof. Kawata's policy. Research results that he obtained without using money or machines adorn science magazines. "I want the students to know that those are the kinds of things that are cool." Being able to do things on a large budget and with special equipment is a given. But it's as if people are being used by money and machines. In cuisine, "expensive and delicious is a matter of course, cheap and delicious is a value." Perhaps this attitude comes from his Osakan nature.

When he reads research papers, he is, of course, interested in the content of the research, but even more so, the background as to why the researchers wanted to perform the research. Prof. Kawata thinks of ideas that no one has thought of before. He says that how you give form to those ideas is key. "I'd like to continue to try new things, while at the same time remembering to have fun as well," said a spirited Prof. Kawata.

KAWATA Satoshi

Born in Ikeda, Osaka in 1951, Prof. KAWATA Satoshi graduated from the Department of Applied Physics, School of Engineering, Osaka University in 1974, and received his doctorate degree (Doctor of Engineering) from the Department of Applied Physics, Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University in 1979. In the same year he began working as a research assistant at the University of California, Irvine, after which he became an assistant at the Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University in 1981. After that, he became an assistant professor and a professor in the Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University in 1993. After that, he became the director of the Photonics Center at Osaka University in 2007, and earned the title of "Osaka University Distinguished Professor" in 2013. He currently also works as a RIKEN team leader and Chairman of the Board at Nanophoton. He has received the Minister's Award for Science and Technology in 2005, the 8th Reona Esaki Prize in 2011, and the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2007.

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