My Journey in Chemical Research—Learning from People and Things
Abstract of the lecture
My journey in the field of chemical research began in April 1947, when I entered the laboratory of Professor Jitsusaburo Sameshiima as a third-year student in the chemistry department of the Faculty of Science in the University of Tokyo. As it was shortly after the end of the war, the laboratory was in a pathetic state and virtually devoid of newly published materials; but Professor Sameshima and my senior colleagues, who engaged in direct instruction, were veritable treasure troves themselves. My journey therefore began with learning from people. This has not changed right up to the present, some 60 years later. The story of this interaction with people is at the same time the story of my journey. It contains interludes of scolding and even stern lecturing as well as encouragement. Here, I would like to take up one of these interludes and comment on what are precious memories to me as my subject today. Specifically, I would like to share a poem that was composed by Professor Hideo Akamatu, another professor to whom I am deeply indebted, on the occasion of the gathering to celebrate my 60th birthday during my days at the Institute for Molecular Science (1975 to 1996): "Looking back, the bountiful harvest of autumn comes only after the toils of spring and summer."
I also make a point of learning from things. Chemistry is a science of making substances and learning about their essences. In this sense, my first encounter came with measuring the electrical resistance of carbon blacks as the theme of my graduate research. The suggestion that the carbon blacks areconstantly combusting provided the key drive for my foray into the territory of organic semiconductors, my lifelong research theme. Taking natural and synthetic together, there are nearly 100 million types of substances (or things) on the face of the earth. People who major in chemistry do their utmost to synthesize a new type.
At this point, I would like to mention how, since the dawn of history, our ancestors contributed to human advancement by learning from natural things or, in other words, from nature. I also want to describe how what they learned in this way was correct even when viewed in the light of modern chemical knowledge.
Let us take the case of dyes. Some textiles on 1,500-year-old artifacts stored in Nara's Shosoin repository were dyed using safflower and saffron. Only recently, well over a thousand years later, scientists have determined that the molecular structures of such dyes, which our ancestors discovered empirically, were optimal for dyeing.
Dyes are only one example. Penicillin; smallpox vaccine; and chemical condiments derived from Japan's research, the kind of research in which it takes great pride, are all examples of substances isolated from compounds that were born by learning from nature.
I have high hopes that we will be able to bequeath human knowledge intact to succeeding generations, learn from the things in nature brimming with wonder, and maintain the health of the earth in a balanced manner.