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.
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Copyright © 2001-2002 by Tatsuo Tabata

Contents of This Page

51. Chiral Molecules and Mirror Images
52. The importance of "Blue Skies" Research
53. Science and Art: Their Difference and Similarity
54. Functional Cosmology
55. Science and Metaphors
56. Medicine and Art
57. (A Special Story) Nobel Statement "The Next Hundred Years"
58. Scientific Scrutiny of Mondrian's Beliefs
59. Geniuses and Mental Illness
60. The Japanese Short Poem "Tanka"

To All the Contents of Femto-Column

51. Chiral Molecules and Mirror Images

There are molecules called chiral. They appear in two forms, one of which is the mirror image of the other just like our left and right hands. William Knowles, Ryoji Noyori, and K. Barry Sharpless won Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2001 for having developed molecules that can catalyze reactions so as to produce only one of the two chiral forms of a compound. The work has proved useful for the production of pharmaceuticals, flavorings, insecticides and advanced materials.1

As for mirroring, we have had a moderately famous teaser, "Why does a mirror reverse left and right but not up and down?" Can you give an answer? It is very strange that until recently the definitive answer to this question had eluded many thinkers including the Nobel Laureates Sin-Itiro Tomonaga2 and Richard Feynman3. In 2000, Michael Corballis4 and we (T. Tabata and S. Okuda5) independently published papers to answer the above question (see also Sec. 23 of this column).

Tabata and Okuda express their answer by the following five statements:

  1. A mirror reverses the direction of an object along the axis perpendicular to the mirror in producing its image.
  2. The directional reversal in statement 1 changes an asymmetric object into its enantiomorph (this change is called inversion).
  3. The enantiomorph can be interpreted as having been obtained by the reversal of the object along any arbitrary axis.
  4. The left-right axis of an object (or its mirror image) is determined by a specific 3-D relation with respect to the top-bottom (or up-down) and front-back axes inherent in the object (or its mirror image), after the latter two axes have been determined by the use of externally observable asymmetry as a criterion for the sense of axes.
  5. Among the top-bottom, front-back, and left-right axes, the first two cannot be reversed because of their preceding determination from external asymmetry. Consequently, the left-right axis has to be identified as the axis reversed in inversion by mirroring.

The key point lies in the nature of the definition of left and right as given in statement 4.

  1. "Press Release Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2001" (The Nobel Foundation).
  2. S. Tomonaga, "Kagaminonaka no Sekai (The World in the Mirror)" (Misuzu-Shobo, Tokyo, 1965) (in Japanese).
  3. J. Gleick, "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" (Little Brown, London, 1992).
  4. M. C. Corballis, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 163-169 (2000).
  5. T. Tabata and S. Okuda, ibid., Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 170-173 (2000). Read Abstract

24 Oct 01

Notes added later

Soon after the news of Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2001 had appeared, one of the Nobelist Ryoji Noyori spoke about the Japanese Government's unreasonable goal of capturing 30 Nobel Prizes in the next half-century as follows: "Nobel Prizes are different from Olympic gold medals. It's very subjective to decide which fields are more important than others." [Science, Vol. 294, No. 5543, p. 777 (2001)]

A book and papers related to the mirror reversal problem have been published:

52. The importance of "Blue Skies" Research

An article1 in the Science magazine reported this news: The Karolinska Institute is forging alliances intended to make it competitive with the Harvards and Cambridges of the world, by emphasizing on industry ties under the president Hans Wigzell and getting a preliminary go-ahead for Stockholm BioScience. I mentioned this news in my e-mail message to Pedro Andreo, a friend of mine at the Karolinska Institute, hoping that what is going on there was also good for his research activity on medical radiation physics.

Pedro wrote me back that there were a lot of things he disagreed in "commercial" policies and that he was much more of the opinion of an article2 in The Guardian than that of stressing "applied" research. He kindly attached a copy of the article to his e-mail message to me.

The article of The Guardian describes that there are three reasons for celebrating the award of the Nobel prize for medicine, which is shared between two British scientists, Paul Nurse and Tim Hunt, and Leland Hartwell of U. S. A. The first and second reasons are specific ones related to their own work. The third is the reason to be mentioned here in relation to Pedro's comment. The author of the article insists that it is yet another justification for spending money on pure research which does not have any obvious outcome when it is embarked upon, and continues as follows:

Practically every major breakthrough, from Darwin's discovery of evolution to x-rays, lasers and microwaves has been sparked by curiosity-driven research without pecuniary motives. It is worth stressing this fact because, during Mrs. Thatcher's administration, such "blue skies" research was almost ridiculed.  . . .  As a result, what little government money there was went disproportionately to application-driven research. The number of Nobel prizes won by people working in UK laboratories dropped from 11 in the 1960s and 13 in the 70s to four in the 80s and two in the 90s.  . . .  Unless pure science can be made an attractive option for young people - financially as well as creatively - then the source of future talent will dry up.

This is also a point to be recognized by the Japanese Government, which is going to follow the principle similar to Mrs. Thatcher's.

  1. R. Stone and L. Frank, "Karolinska Inc.," Science, Vol. 293, No. 5539, p. 2374 (2001).
  2. "A Nobel achievement: Pure scientific research takes the prize," The Guardian, Oct. 10, 2001.

3 Nov 01

53. Science and Art: Their Difference and Similarity

Alan Lightman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U. S. A., has written an essay1 about the difference between scientists and artists. He first describes his opinion that the scientist tries to name things and that the artist tries to avoid naming things. Then he gives an explanation of this as follows: "If love is shown, rather than named, each reader will experience it and, what's more, will understand it in his or her own way.  . . .   Every electron is identical, but every love is different." Lightman finally writes, "In expository writing [of science], you want to get to your reader's brain. In creative writing [of art], you want to bypass the brain and go straight for the stomach or the heart."

Some readers, like myself, might read literary writings by their brain to some extent against artists' intention. However, this should be permitted as one of the methods to appreciate literary writings.

There is another essay,2 which also treats the relation of science and art but describes similarity between them rather than difference. It is has been written by Jean-Marc Levy-Léblond of the University of Nice, France, and can be summarized as follows:

Science investigates facts of the world. On the other hand, art and poetry produce fictitious creations of the mind. However, making hypotheses ("fictiones" in Latin) is one of the first steps of scientific activity. Euclidean geometry deals with fictions: points with no extension, lines with neither width nor ends, etc. Physical laws are given under simplified conditions that are difficult to realize, namely, under fictitious conditions. Although our space-time has 3 + 1 dimensions, theoretical physicists now investigate hypothetical universes with 10 or 26 dimensions, expecting that our own world should resemble some corner of super-universes. Experiment is again the process of imagining and producing artificial phenomena. -- According to Jean Cocteau, poetry is "a lie which tells the truth." The same can be said about science.

I have thought the whole of Levy-Léblond's essay seems to be a big joke or a wrong idea. Sure, it is a joke, because the author finally adds, "At least, this seems an interesting hypothesis to feign." However, it is a good point to know that scientists require imagination like artists, and here is indeed a similarity between science and art.

  1. A. Lightman, "In the name of love?" Nature, Vol. 413, p. 681 (2001) Adapted from "The physicist as novelist" in "The Future of Spacetime, edited by R. H. Price (W. W. Norton, New York, in press).
  2. J.-M. Lévy-Leblond, "Science's fiction," Nature, Vol. 413, p. 573 (2001).

18 Nov 01

54. Functional Cosmology

In a recent issue of "Science," I read the essay "Cosmology and 21st-century culture."1 The authors were Nancy Ellen Abrams (a lawyer, writer, and performance artist) and her husband Joel R. Primack (professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz).

In essence, they write as follows: Every traditional culture had a cosmology -- story of how the world began and continues, how humans came to exist, and what the gods expect of us. Science made all traditional pictures of the universe unbelievable, but it has not yet created its own "functional cosmology" that can guide humanity. The present scientific cosmology is based on the theory of Cosmic Inflation, which says that for an extremely small period at the beginning of the Big Bang, the universe expanded exponentially and that then slow and steady expansion followed it. This can be the metaphor of our culture in the present epoch. Ending the inflating consumption does not mean that all growth must stop. Human life can continue to be enhanced as long as our creativity in restoring the Earth is stronger than our material growth.

Functional cosmology might be important as a guide of humanity, and the optimism of Abrams and Primack is not bad. However, I wonder if we can rely on a metaphor for understanding the meaning of our life and determining our attitude in it.

  1. N. E. Abrams and J. R. Primack, Science, Vol. 293, p. 1769 (2001).

25 Dec 01

55. Science and Metaphors

Richard Rorty at the Department of Comparative Literature, Stanford University, writes a review1 on Leah Ceccarelli's book "Shaping Science with Rhetoric: The cases of Dobzhansky, Schrödinger, and Wilson." This review is interesting to me, because it tells us about the effectiveness of metaphors in science, and describes about the physics imperialism.

All the three persons in the subtitle of Ceccarelli's book are the authors of "interdisciplinary inspirational monographs" as called by Ceccarelli. Theodosius Dobzhansky (Ukrainian geneticist, 1900-1975) wrote "Genetics and the Origin of Species." Erwin Schrödinger (Austrian Nobel-Prize physicist, 1887-1961) was the author of "What is life?" Edward O. Wilson (American biologist, 1929-) published "Consilience: The unity of knowledge."

Among the three books studied by Ceccarelli, those of Dobzhansky and Schrödinger were successful to make scientists in different fields work together. Rorty writes, "Ceccarelli's account of this success helps us appreciate that scientists are easily moved by ingenious metaphors as are litterateurs." It is paradoxical that metaphors are useful for science.

Rorty cites from Wilson's book: "All tangible phenomena . . . are ultimately reduced . . . to the laws of physics." This is the principle sometimes called physics imperialism. According to Rorty, this reductionist view is not the contemporary trend of philosophy of physics. I wonder why the competent biologist Wilson did not notice this.

  1. R. Rorty, Science, Vol. 293, p. 2399 (2001).

15 Feb 02; modified 19 Feb 02

56. Medicine and Art

Here is another story about science and art. Nature Science Update reported the study about the effectiveness of art appreciation for teaching medical students' observational skills.1 The story can be summarized as follows:

Irwin Braverman of Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, U. S. A., worked together with the Yale Center of British Art to give first-year students a fine-art class. He and coworkers found that after only two hours spent studying a classical painting and being questioned on what they saw, students' diagnostic skills had improved.2

One of the paintings used in the study was "The Death of Chatterton" by Henry Wallis. Students were asked questions that made them interpret details of the image, such as "Where in the house is the scene located?" The view of the city through the window suggests the room is an attic, but it could also be a basement if the house were atop a hill. The slanting roof, however, indicates it is a garret room.

Thus the students became better able to pick out key clues in patient photos than a group who sat through an additional anatomy lecture. Art-appreciation classes are now part of the curriculum for all Yale medical students.

Art appreciation would improve not only the observational skills of medical students but also the ability of students in any other scientific discipline. The reason is that observation and deduction from observed data are most important factors in the work of natural science. There would also be other merits for would-be scientists to study art. For example, imaginative power necessary for scientists could be strengthened, and humanism could be learned to foster scientists' responsibility to society.

  1. H. Pearson, "Doctors examine art," Nature Science Update, 12 Sep. 2001.
  2. J. C. Dolev, L. K. Friedlander and I. M. Braverman, "Use of fine art to enhance visual diagnostic skills." Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 286, pp. 1019-1021 (2001).

19 Feb 02; modified 22 Feb 02

57. (A Special Story)
Nobel Statement "The Next Hundred Years"

Click here to read this section.

58. Scientific Scrutiny of Mondrian's Beliefs

I like Piet Mondrian's abstract paintings consisting of simple geometrical patterns. Recently I had the following thought during a walk: It might be possible to imitate his patterns by the use of the elements of his patterns and random numbers. In the evening of the same day, I browsed the latest issues of Nature, and, to my surprise, found a similar idea in a short essay1 of the "Science in culture" column in one of those issues.

The author of the essay, Richard Taylor, works at the Department of Physics, University of Oregon, U. S. A., and writes about the two papers presented at a visual-sciences conference.2 The first impression I got from the subtitle of his essay was that the physicist was arrogant to say if paintings stood up to scientific scrutiny. Arts and sciences belong to rather different worlds. In fact, however, the subtitle does not ask about paintings themselves but beliefs on the aesthetic appeal of these. Aesthetic appeal is such a phenomenon that can be measured to some extent by experimental psychology, and beliefs about a phenomenon can well be the object of scientific scrutiny.

The two papers mentioned tested (1) Mondrian's belief in the correct arrangement of his visual "language" of primary colors and straight lines and (2) his belief that the diagonal lines represented a disruptive element. To test belief (1), the Austrian artist Alan Lee composed eight pieces of his own paintings putting Mondrian's basic design elements randomly. Then he showed them to the subjects together with four of Mondrian's carefully composed patterns. To test belief (2), Branka Spehar, a perception psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, showed subjects images generated by tilting three of Mondrian's paintings at four orientations including the one intended by Mondrian. The results of both the tests indicated no aesthetic preference to the original Mondrian's patterns or orientations. I doubt the appropriateness of the methods of the tests and the usefulness of any conclusion derivable from the results.

Taylor, who showed Pollock's drip paintings were fractal3, concludes rather modestly: "Like characters in a detective story, scientists are simply contributing their own unique clues to one of civilization's great questions - the meaning of art."

  1. R. Taylor, "Spotlight on a visual language: Do Piet Mondrian's beliefs about the aesthetic appeal of his art stand up to scientific scrutiny?" Nature, Vol. 415, p. 961 (2002).
  2. "The art of seeing and the seeing of art," held at Australian National University, Canberra, on 5-7 December 2001.
  3. R. P. Taylor, A. P. Micolich, and D. Jonas, "Fractal analysis of Pollock's drip paintings," Nature Vol. 412, p. 860 (2001).

5 May 02

59. Geniuses and Mental Illness

Recently I watched two films on an artist's life broadcast on television. One is the 1998 Spanish film "Lautrec." It depicted how Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec strove against his fate of an unlucky bodily condition to paint the world of unhappy women and how he lost love repeatedly, indulged in wine and got mental illness.

The other is the 1988 French film "Camille Claudel". Camille Claudel was a pupil and model of Auguste Rodin, and loved him passionately without being able to get married to him. She made sculptures similar to Rodin's. It even drove Rodin angry. She got mental instability and then became insane, spending her last thirty years in mental hospital.

Both of the films show the intense spirit and life, like fire, of the artist who finally became psycopathic. Many of geniuses get mental illness. Is the probability of having mental disease is high for a genius? Or is it that while the probability is not so different between geniuses and ordinary people, geniuses' madness is often told beautifully? One of the latest popular and moving films, "A Beautiful Mind," was about the mathematician and Nobel laureate in economics John Nash (read his autobiography), who fought against his mental illness for many years being supported by his wife Alicia.

11 Jun 02

60. The Japanese Short Poem "Tanka"

Praising simplicity and reductionism in the Japanese culture, the astronomer Mario Livio writes in his book "The Accelerating Universe"1:

. . . ever since the eighth century, the most popular poem structure in Japan has been the short poem (tanka), which has only five lines and thirty-one syllables (arranged in 5, 7, 5, 7, 7).

The tanka poet Hirohiko Okano writes in the opening essay of the July-2002 issue of the magazine Tosho (Books)2 as follows:

The tanka is something like one of the genes of the heart of the Japanese. When we concentrate our thought and choose words in compliance with its form and rhythm, we have the feeling that our mind goes beyond our own, reaches the creative mind and emotion of many generations of the past, and echoes with them.

However, the literary Japanese language used for the tanka is becoming unfamiliar to the young Japanese. Okano laments this fact and wishes to lengthen its life as much as possible by his activity.

The Nobel-Prize winning physicist Hideki Yukawa was an excellent tanka poet. I sometimes make tankas, too. The followings are poor examples:

Midori koku
iraka kagayaku
jo-oka machi
ko-oji no shijima
magarite tsuzuku

(In deep green
with bright tiled roofs
lies a former castle town.
The quietness of narrow streets
continues with bends and turns.)

Koeda nite
ushiro-gami fure
mushi ita to
katsute iinishi
Utatsu-yama kana.

(With a twig
I touched her hair
from behind, saying,
"There was a bug."
It was long ago on Mt. Utatsu.)

Both of the above tankas were made in my hometown, Kanazawa, which is one of the cities called a small Kyoto and has good environments to think of poems.

You can find better tankas in original Japanese and English translation in "Man'yo Luster" authored by Ian Hideo Levy and others.3

  1. M. Livio, "The accelerating Universe" (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000).
  2. H. Okano, "A gene of the heart of the Japanese," Tosho, No. 639, p. 1 (2002).
  3. I. H. Levy, H. Inoue and K. Takaoka, "Man'yo Luster" (P.I.E Books, Tokyo, 2002).

9 Jul 02

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