Femto-Column: Short Essays
on Science and Humanity
Tatsuo Tabata

"Femto" is "a combining form used in the names of units of measure that are one quadrillionth (10 to minus 15) the size of the unit denoted by the base word" (Random House Webster's College Dictionary). Femto-meter, fm, is a unit suitable to express the size of atomic nuclei. Thus, "femto" is used here for the name of a very short column.
Send your comment from the guest book page.
Copyright © 2001 by Tatsuo Tabata

Contents of This Page

41. Reunification of Art and Technology
42. Distorting History
43. A Play Depicting Feynman as Clown
44. Which of These Papers Were Published in Nature?
45. Another Theater Show about a Nobel-Prize Physicist
46. A Message to a Novice Teacher of Physics
47. The Basic Problem at the Background of a Tragic Incident
48. A Film Made by Unifying Two Types
49. Science and Art
50. Dimensions: Does Its Number Increase or Decrease?

To All the Contents of Femto-Column

41. Reunification of Art and Technology

Mariko Hasegawa, Professor of evolution biology at Waseda University, wrote about the book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," in an issue in 2000 of the magazine "Tosho (Books)" something like this: Many years ago when she was studying in England and going to buy a motorcycle, a friend of hers recommended her to read this book written by Robert Pirsig, but it was not really a book on motorcycle maintenance but a book that taught philosophy in a simple manner. She liked this book and read it repeatedly.

Some days after reading this, I found that the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book had been published in paperback.1 I bought a copy, and learned that it had been a bestseller when first published. I began to read it by expecting to get a systematic knowledge about philosophy or the history of philosophy. To some extent, this expectation made me read the book quickly in an effort to reach possible chapters where the teaching of philosophy might be fully developed. Even without such a motivation, one can read this book speedily, because the story magically enchants the reader and because the author's style of writing is very readable even to the non-native speaker of English who, like me, has read only a small number of novels in English.

Surely, descriptions of classical philosophies and contemporary philosophical problems are given in this book in parallel with the story of motorcycle traveling, but I have found that this is essentially a novel. In the last chapters the story of a relation between a father and his son reaches a moving climax. The great point of the book is however that it can also be enjoyed as a book on philosophy. The author's narration invokes thinking about the reunification of art and technology and about the quality of life.

On a page at about three quarters of the whole story (page 294), the author spends more than a half page to insist that classic and romantic understanding should not be overlaid superficially one on the other but be united at a basic level. By classic understanding, the author means scientific and technological activity, and by romantic understanding, activity in the arts. After a little over a quarter of a century from the publication of the first edition of Pirsig's book and at the beginning of the 21st century, the necessity of this unification, or reunification since the Greek era, seems to have become much more important.

  1. Robert M. Pirsig, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values" (William Morrow, New York, 1999; first edition published in 1974).

31 Jan 01

(A modified version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" on the bying-info page of this book at

42. Distorting History

On April 3, 2001, Japan's Education and Science Ministry endorsed the draft of a junior high school history textbook, which was written by a nationalist group known as the Association to Create New History Textbooks. In a screening process a ministry panel recommended about 137 sections be revised due to their controversial content, but other controversial sections including parts that refer to Japanese troops as "valiant" were left out. Thus the above approval drew sharp criticism from China and South Korea (adapted from the news of

Kanji Nishio, a leader of the above Association is reported to have said as follows1:

Why should Japan be the only country that should teach kids, of ages from 12 to 15 years, bad things about itself? I think it is ridiculous, sad and tragic that Japan cannot write her own patriotic history. We lost the war, and a fantasy was born that by talking bad about yourself, you can strengthen your position. I call that masochistic.

The patriotism of the Association is based on a narrow viewpoint without caring about international relationship. The members of the Association also have the wrong conception that the history can be rewritten as they like it, independent of facts and scientific scrutiny. Compare their "logic" with the following statement2:

Today, Japan may be the most prominent economical power in the (Asian Pacific) area, but the economy of the region is growing at an amazing pace. The deep mistrust of Japan by its neighbors could eventually lead to regional conflicts and troublesome consequences.  . . .  Not many people still remember that more than 30 million people lost their precious lives to the invading forces from Japan during the "Forgotten Asian Holocaust." However, it is not something that their children can and will ever forget. The Japanese Government must have the courage to face its past.

  1. H. W. French,"Japan's Resurgent Far Right Tinkers with History," The New York Times, March 25, (2001).
  2. I. Y. Ding, P. Tcheng and G. Rodriquez, "Opinion-Editorial: Japan's Fear of Truth," (Link broken) The Web Site of Alliance for Preserving the Truth of Sino-Japanese War.

11 Apr 01

43. A Play Depicting Feynman as Clown

The theatrical performance "QED," written by Peter Parnell and directed by Gordon Davidson, is being presented at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, until 13 May 2001. QED is the acronym of quantum electrodynamics, the fundamental theory of electromagnetic radiation and its interaction with microscopic charged particles. The story of the play is about the Nobel Prize Physicist Richard Feynman. A review of the play is given in the journal Nature.1 It can be summarized as follows:

The celebrated actor Alan Alda plays Feynman generally as clown in an almost one-man show. Not only the actor but also the playwright and the director seem to have planned to hide Feynman's intelligence from the audience. Elements of pathos to be shown are deprived of emotion by the constant straining for laughs. What is left is only an anthology of anecdotes and aphorisms.

Surely, Feynman showed himself up as clown in his popular books and public scenes. It was however only one of his personae. His true personality consisted of burning curiosity about everything, quick grasp of essential points of matter and keen insight into the problems he treated. A play without showing these deserves to get a severe criticism. Being a fan of him, I hope that a much better play of Feynman be born in the near future.

  1. H. F. Judson, "Enter Feynman, as clown," Nature Vol. 410, p. 634 (2001).

27 Apr 01

Note added later

The play "QED" was also described in a short column by Toni Feder: "Alda Plays Feynman in 'QED,' Physics Today, Vol. 54, No. 4, p. 29 (2001).

Go to “What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?”

44. Which of These Papers Were Published in Nature?

The followings are some of important papers in the field of physical sciences. Which of them, do you think, were published in the journal Nature? (The answer is given at the end of this essay.)

  1. W. C. Röntgen (translated by A. Stanton from a German journal), "On a new kind of rays" (X-rays).
  2. Louis de Broglie, "Waves and Quanta"
  3. C. Davisson and L. H. Germer "The scattering of electrons by a single crystal of nickel."
  4. C. V. Raman and K. S. Krishnan, "A New Type of Secondary Radiation" (Raman effect).
  5. J. Chadwick, "Possible existence of a neutron."
  6. Lise Meitner and O. R. Frisch, "Disintegration of uranium by neutrons: A new type of nuclear reaction" (Nuclear fission).
  7. G. D. Rochester and C. C. Butler, "Evidence for the existence of new unstable elementary particles" (The K meson).
  8. T. H. Maiman, "Stimulated optical radiation in ruby" (The first laser).
  9. A. Hewish, S. J. Bell, J. D. H. Pilkington, P. F. Scott and R. A. Collins, "Observation of a rapidly pulsating radio source" (The first pulsar).
  10. P. C. Lauterbur, "Image Formation by Induced Local Interactions: Examples Employing Nuclear Magnetic Resonance" (MRI).
  11. A. Schilling, M. Cantoni, J. D. Guo and H. R. Ott, "Superconductivity above 130 K in the Hg-Ba-Ca-Cu-O system."

I have been thinking that Nature is mostly oriented to biological sciences. Recently a web site named "Nature Physics Portal" was opened. The document entitled "Why a nature physics portal, and why now?" on this site admits that in the 1970s and '80s the journal was dominated by papers in molecular biology, earth sciences and astronomy. However, the following description is included:

Nature is a journal of all the sciences. Over the years since Nature was founded in 1869, the balance of content between physical and biological sciences has varied widely. For example, in the decades leading up to the Second World War, Nature might have been mistaken for a physics journal.

Then the swing to biological sciences as described above came. The editors of Nature have worked hard over the past 10-15 years to increase the number of physics papers that appear in each issue. The establishment of the Nature Physics Portal web site is one of such efforts. Owing to these efforts, the journal will possibly restore the balance between physical and biological sciences soon. The Nature Physics Portal web site has a page, "Looking back," where we learn that all the 11 papers listed at the beginning of this essay were published in Nature as shown below (the HTML and PDF versions of these papers are available from the site).

  1. W. C. Röntgen, Nature 53, 274-277 (1896); original German paper published in Sitzungsberichte der Würzburger Physik-medic. Gesellschaft (1895).
  2. L. de Broglie, Nature 112, 540 (1923).
  3. C. Davisson and L. H. Germer, Nature 119, 558-560 (1927).
  4. C. V. Raman and K. S. Krishnan, Nature 121, 501-502 (1928).
  5. J. Chadwick, Nature 192, 312 (1932).
  6. L. Meitner and O. R. Frisch, Nature 143, 239-240 (1939).
  7. G. D. Rochester and C. C. Butler, Nature 160, 855-857 (1947).
  8. T. H. Maiman, Nature 187, 493-494 (1960).
  9. A. Hewish et al., Nature 217, 709-713 (1968).
  10. P. C. Lauterbur, Nature 242, 190-191 (1973).
  11. A. Schilling et al., Nature 363, 56-58 (1993).

4 May 01

45. Another Theater Show about a Nobel-Prize Physicist

The dynamic play Into the Antiworld celebrating Paul Dirac's prediction of the existence of anti-matter ran at Bloomsbury Theatre, London, from 2 to 5 May 2001, in the combined style of drama, acrobatics, dance and music.1 Under the title The Oracle of Delphi, the play was first performed at CERN in Geneva. CERN is the world's leading high-energy physics laboratory.

The CERN Courier magazine carried a favorable review of the first version of the play2: "As an introduction to antimatter and as a spectacle, The Delphic Oracle was memorable, displaying Dirac's torment at having constructed a theory so perfect that its implications were unthinkable." The Science in Culture column of Nature also praised The Oracle of Delphi by writing,3 "The show's artistic success, which is certainly helped by the drama of the space in which it is performed, is in part due to a concise script by Anne Gaud McKee, a molecular biologist from the University of Geneva, and the professional acrobats and mime artists who perform." In 1997 McKee and Markus Schmid established the Miméscope theater company that produced The Delphic Oracle and Into the Antiworld to excite the audience's interest not only in the scientific process, but also in the ethical and philosophical aspects of modern research.4

A review of the second version of the show in PhysicsWeb reads as follows,1 "Into the Antiworld doesn't attempt a rigorous explanation of antimatter and its implications, but the areas it does include are covered well." Thus the play seems to have been successful to some extent again in London, i.e., outside the high-energy physics laboratory. However, the reviewer adds, "I also wonder how many non-scientists would be attracted to a physics-inspired performance in the first place. It would be a shame for Into the Antiworld to 'preach only to the converted.'

McKee is reported to have said,1 "We can't explain everything about a subject, but we do hope that we inspire people to go away and find out about it for themselves." There would be many difficulties in conveying to non-scientists the work process at the innermost depth of a theoretical physicist's brain through a play, but we should welcome the efforts to overcome the difficulties and tell the excitement of science to the audience.

  1. K. Pennicott, "Into the Antiworld," PhysicsWeb, 4 May (2001).
  2. G. Fraser, "The Delphic Oracle and antimatter," CERN Courier (2000).
  3. A. Abbott, "The life of Paul Dirac, The Oracle of Delphi, a show performed at CERN, Geneva," Nature, Vol. 403, p. 138 (2000).
  4. "About Miméscope and its members," The web site of Miméscope.

17 May 01

46. A Message to a Novice Teacher of Physics

June 7, 2001

Dear Ken-ichi,

Thanks for your message of June 6. Surely, it's problematic that the students of your physics course got an average score of about 30 out of a possible 100. Wasn't it that the problems you presented to them were too difficult? You say that you have to improve your skill of teaching. Of course, it is important, but there would also be another thing for you to do.

In a summer during my working years at the Radiation Center of Osaka Prefecture, I gave a special course of lecture on radiation physics at a medical college. On the final day I gave an examination to my students by using some problems from the textbook they used. Their average score was surprisingly high, so that I suspected that they cheated in the examination.

To my pleasure, however, a teacher of the college told me later that most of the students I taught had passed the national examination for the license of radiation engineering. I don't think that my teaching was especially skilful. Nor do I imagine that I aroused cause for studying hard in their mind through my course, but they were somehow well motivated for becoming a good radiation engineer. It would be one of important tasks of the teacher to give motivation to students if they lack it.

Best regards,

Adapted from an e-mail message actually sent, 8 Jun 01

47. The Basic Problem at the Background of a Tragic Incident

On June 8, 2001, a deranged man burst into an elementary school in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, and stabbed school children and teachers with a kitchen knife. Eight children were killed and 15 people were wounded. This tragic incident was reviewed by The New York Times as one of 11 big news items of the week, June 3-9.

A friend of mine in U. S. A. sent me an e-mail message, hoping our not being affected by the unusual event. I wrote him back as follows:

It was quite a sad happening, and discussion is being made all over our country how we can avoid such an incident. Keeping children's safety and keeping schools open to citizens have contradictory factors and provide difficult problems. There is also a difficulty in finding an appropriate extent to which we can control the life of mentally problematic person who might cause a violent event.

However, I now consider that the most fundamental problem to be discussed for preventing a similar tragedy would be how to increase the financial aids of the government fully to support psychotherapy and psychiatric welfare.

14 Jun 01

48. A Film Made by Unifying Two Types

The 1999 film The Letter, directed by Manoel de Oliveira, was put on the screen in Osaka from June 30, 2001. It is an adaptation of Madam Lafayette's 17th century novel The Princess of Cleves. The story was transported to modern-day Paris. At first the audience might be surprised by the substitution of the Portuguese pop singer Pedro Abrunhosa (played by himself) for Duke Nemours. However, the film has a classical flavor in the use of titles before each chapter to summarize the situation, in the scene of Maria João Pires (played by herself) performing Schubert's impromptu on the piano, and above all in the depiction of rather outdated but respectable moral of the young and beautiful heroine (played elegantly by Chiara Mastroianni).

In the leaflet1 sold at the theater, I found a review of the film written analytically by the music critic Kyoichi Kuroda. The review can be summarized as follows:

There are two types of film; one comes to show itself, jumping on the bandwagon of commercialism, and the other waits to be seen by willing people. The first type is similar to Abrunhosa's songs and Abrunhosa himself; and the second, to Schubert's impromptu and Mr. Cleves. In the present age when only entertainingness is valued, the film of the second type cannot be influential. Oliveira, who has noticed this, seems to me similar to Mrs. Cleves, whose mind moves between the two persons represented by the two types of music.

Moving between the two types or rather unifying them, Oliveira made an excellent piece of work. At the end of the film, heroine's best friend, a nun (Leonor Silveira), reads a letter from her. The letter reveals that Mrs. Cleves has sublimated her agony into social devotion of helping displaced persons. A review in Times magazine praises the ending scene, in which the nun finishes the letter and leaves her cell to join a flock of sisters moving toward vesper, writing, "It would be poetically apt if this were Oliveira's last film, but why stop him? The director is only 90."2

  1. "The Princess of Cleves (A Film by Manoel de Oliveira 'The Letter')" (Alcine-Terran, Tokyo, 2001) In Japanese.
  2. R. Corliss, "A Steller Eclipse," Time, Vol. 153, No. 21 (1999).

7 Jul 01

49. Science and Art

In his short essay published in Nature,1 Robert S. Root-Bernstein of the Department of Medical Humanities, Michigan State University, has written that the arts often contribute to modern science, disagreeing with the words given at the Nobel conference in 1980 by the physicist Freeman Dyson and the Nobel laureate in chemistry William Lipscomb. Another essay about the relation of a branch of science and art has appeared in the Science magazine. It has been written by Semir Zeki, Professor of Neurobiology at University College London.

Zeki states that the neurological study of art will elucidate the source of one of our richest subjective experience and the most important characteristics of the human brain. He gives examples of Mondrian, who settled on the straight lines as the major feature of his compositions years before the discovery of orientation-selective cells responding selectively to straight lines, and kinetic artists Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely, who composed works that emphasized motion before the visual motion center of the brain (area V5) was found, and insists that artists are, in a sense, neurologists who unknowingly study the brain with techniques unique to them. -- This reminds me of a friend of mine who liked to draw paintings composed of circles and curves. She might also have been studying the brain with a technique unique to her. --

Zeki then describes about two supreme laws of the visual brain, which visual art also obeys. The first is the law of constancy. The brain categorizes an object by discarding changing conditions. A great work of art similarly tries to distill on canvas essential qualities. The second law is that of abstraction, the process in which the particular is subordinated to the general. This is again an important function of the brain and art. The abstract "ideal", Zeki writes, can however lead to a dissatisfying result, because the daily experience is that of particulars than of the general. He refers here to Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures including The Rondanini Pietà, and cites Schopenhauer's words: In art "something, and the ultimate thing, must always be left over for the imagination [the brain] to do."

Zeki further writes that art has been a creative refuge for unsatisfied ideals created by the brain through its abstractive process, and gives examples of Dante's The Divine Comedy and Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This essay by Zeki is itself a wonderful amalgam of science and art. It strongly supports Root-Bernstein's view that the arts and sciences are to be as unified today as they were in Renaissance. I completely agree with the latter's proposal that we must foster the connections between the two disciplines and people who can develop those connections.

  1. R. S. Root-Bernstein, "Art advances science," Nature, Vol. 407, p. 134 (2000).
  2. S. Zeki, "Artistic creativity and the brain," Science, Vol. 293, pp. 51-52 (2001).

13 Aug 01

50. Dimensions: Does Its Number Increase or Decrease?

From Edwin A. Abbott's "Flatland"1 to its modern sequel "Flatterland"2 written by Ian Stewart, science fictions taught us how to understand higher dimensions. In the real world of these days, theoretical physicists have been studying string theories, which predict that the number of spatial dimensions effectively increases with energy up to ten. A radical models quite contrary to these theories have however been proposed by two groups of theorists3,4, one based at Harvard University and the other at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. They have suggested a concrete mechanism for how dimensions of space can come into being, and even disappear at high energies.

Joseph D. Lykken of the Theoretical Physics Department, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, explains the idea and implication of the above models quite understandably.5 A short summary of the explanation is as follows:

We understand spatial dimension from motion. Different forces working on electrons in a solid, for example, allow them to move in dimensions from zero to three. So, dimensionality effectively depends on forces.

The new models extend this analogy to elementary particles in a vacuum. Put the Universe under a powerful enough microscope, and you will find that space itself is a lattice, an array of discrete points, like a crystal made of atoms. For an elementary particle to move, there must be a force that destroys the particle at one point in space and creates its copy at a neighboring point. "No force, no motion; no motion, no dimension." In the models the forces actually turn off at high energies, thereby reducing the number of spatial dimensions.

These ideas are still extremely speculative, but should be testable. For example, the same experiments that are looking for the extra dimensions of string theories by using particle colliders might turn up evidence that quarks, electrons, gluons or photons are moving in fewer dimensions at the highest energies that can now be produced.

To increase or to decrease, that is the question. (See also Ref. 6.)

  1. E. A. Abbott, "Flatland" (Dover, New York, 1952; Originally published in 1884 from Seeley & Co.).
  2. I. Stewart, "Flatterland: Like Flatland, Only More So" (Perseus, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001).
  3. N. Arkani-Hamed, A. G. Cohen and H. Georgi, Phys. Rev. Lett. 86, 4757-4761 (2001).
  4. C. T. Hill, S. Pokorski, and J. Wang, J. Phys. Rev. D (in press).
  5. J. D. Lykken, "High-energy physics: Disappearing dimensions," Nature Vol. 412, pp. 130-131 (2001).
  6. P. F. Schewe, B. Stein and J. Riordon, "(De)Constructing Dimensions," Physics News Update, No. 539 (May 15, 2001)

21 Aug 01

Top of Page  |  IDEA Home 1  |  IDEA Home 2  |  IDEA Home (Japanese)

inserted by FC2 system