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 © 2002-2003 by Tatsuo Tabata

Contents of This Page

61. The Mystery of a Stone Garden
62. A Step towards Antimatter
63. The Neutrino and Astrophysics
64. Koichi Tanaka Says, "Failure Teaches Success"
65. Christmas
66. The Clever Crow
67. Breaking Up of Columbia
68. Missing Day Story
69. Uncertainty Principle in Life
70. "I Could Die after Completing This Film."

To All the Contents of Femto-Column

61. The Mystery of a Stone Garden

The Zen garden at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, is of dry landscape type, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Mosher1 writes about this garden as follows:

. . . Ryoan-ji's visitors sit on the wide wooden steps in the sun and look out at the garden, and then the question begins; here is a group of stones set into a bed of raked white gravel, surrounded by a slanting mud wall . . . What does it all mean? What questions can it answer?

Van Tonder et al.2 have mathematically analyzed the arrangement of stones in the Ryoan-ji garden. They derived the local axes of symmetry for the spacial structure. Here symmetry is determined by the balance between the total mass of stones seen on left and that on right. Just like twigs, branches and the trunk of a tree, the axes of symmetry in the garden come to be united to a broader line as the viewing point moves nearer to the building of the temple and into it, to steps, a corridor and the central room.

The authors have found: The traditionally preferred viewing point of the garden, located at the center of the central room, lies close to the final single axis of symmetry. Further, an alcove, in which Buddhist statue is placed, is just on that axis. -- It seems that science well help us understand arts. --

  1. G. Mosher, "Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide" (Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont, 1964).
  2. G. J. Van Tonder, M. J. Lyons and Y. Ejima, "Visual structure of a Japanese Zen garden," Nature Vol. 419, pp. 359-360 (2002).

1 Oct 02

62. A Step towards Antimatter

In the science fiction "Eater" written by Gregory Benford, a robot copy-made from the heroine Channing flies to the black hole Eater on a spaceship carrying an antimatter bomb to change the course of the Eater and to prevent its collision with the Earth.1 In reality, neutral antimatter does not exist naturally on the Earth. Nor has it ever been made in the laboratory.

Antihydrogen atoms, i.e., the first-step thing towards antimatter, were produced at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) near Geneva and Fermilab in USA in 1996.2 However, those antihydrogen atoms were flying so speedily that they were of no use for measuring their physical nature.

In the recent issue of "Nature," a group of scientists at CERN reported the success in the production of many "cold" antihydrogen atoms that moved very slowly.3,4 Though it is yet quite far from the production of antimatter, science approaches the science fiction gradually. I don't wish only that antimatter bombs be made for wars on the Earth in the far future.

  1. G. Benford, "Eater" (Eos, New York, 2000).
  2. The work at CERN is described in detail by G. Fraser, "Antimatter: The Ultimate Mirror" (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000).
  3. M. Amoretti et al., "Production and detection of cold antihydrogen atoms," Nature Vol. 419, 456-459 (2002); advance online publication 18 Sep. 2002 (doi:10.1038/nature01096).
  4. T. W. Hijmans, "Cold antihydrogen (News and views)," Nature Vol. 419, 439-440 (2002).
Related sites
  1. P. Schewe, J. Riordon, and B. Stein, "Cold anti-hydrogen atoms," Physics News Update, No. 605, 18 Sep. (2002).
  2. P. Rodgers, "Cold antiatoms arrive in large numbers," PhysicsWeb, 18 Sep. (2002).

7 Oct 02

63. The Neutrino and Astrophysics

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2002 has been awarded to three astrophysicists who pioneered the fields of neutrino astronomy and X-ray astronomy. Ray Davis Jr. of USA and Masatoshi Koshiba of Japan share half the prize for "pioneering contributions to astrophysics, in particular for the detection of cosmic neutrinos." Riccardo Giacconi of USA receives the other half of the prize for "pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources."

Prof. Koshiba is the eleventh Nobel Laureate of Japan (the news of the twelfth Laureate, Mr. Koichi Tanaka for the Chemistry Prize, arrived the next evening). Here I write briefly about the neutrino and Prof. Koshiba's work.

The Austrian-Swiss physicist Wolfgang Pauli theoretically suggested the existence of the neutrino in 1930 to explain the missing energy in the phenomenon of nuclear beta decay. This very small particle, neutrino, was supposed to have neither electric charge nor mass and to fly always with the speed of light. So it was extremely difficult to catch it. Pauli himself said, "I have done a terrible thing, I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected." However, the American physicists Frederick Reins and Clyde Cowan succeeded in confirming the existence of the neutrino in the intense radiations from nuclear reactors in 1953.

Prof. Koshiba and his coworkers built a huge detector, Kamiokande, for the purpose of observing the possible phenomenon of proton decay, which theoretical physicists in the late 1970th had predicted. The detector was located in a lead mine beneath the town of Kamioka. The name of the detector comes from Kamioka Nucleon Decay Experiment. After several years of operation of the detector, however, the team got no positive result, and turned to other projects, including the detection of neutrinos from the sun and supernovae, i.e., neutrino astrophysics. Soon after upgrading the detector to Kamiokande II for these projects, the team luckily caught the neutrinos from the supernova explosion in 1987. Those neutrinos were just the gift from heaven.

My former boss Dr. Shigeru Okabe at the Radiation Center of Osaka Prefecture (RCOP) had also interest in observing neutrinos in his young days, but we had neither resources nor a good idea for such a big project at the RCOP. It was only our dream. After Prof. Koshiba's team succeeded in detecting neutrinos from the supernova explosion, Dr. Okabe attended a scientific conference held in former Soviet Union. Coming back from the conference, he told me that he had said to Soviet scientists, "You have some big institutes, but you don't have a Kamiokande." This anecdote indicates that at that time he was already well aware of the importance of the work done by Prof. Koshiba and his coworkers. Many Japanese physicists also believed that Prof. Koshiba would be awarded the Nobel Prize in due course. Congratulations, Prof. Koshiba!


  1. "The Nobel Prize in Physics 2002" Nobel e-Musium , 8 Oct (2002).
  2. "Nobel Prize Rewards Neutrino Astrophysics and X-ray Astronomy" PhysicsWeb News, 8 Oct (2002).
  3. L. A. Marschall, "The Supernova Story" (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988).
  4. C. Sutton, "Spaceship Neutrino" (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992).

11 Oct 02

64. Koichi Tanaka Says, "Failure Teaches Success"

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2002 has been awarded to three chemists who developed methods for identification and structure analyses of biological macromolecules. John B. Fenn of USA and Koichi Tanaka of Japan share half the prize "for their development of soft desorption ionization methods for mass spectrometric analyses of biological macromolecules." The other half of the prize goes to Kurt Wüthrich of Switzerland "for his development of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for determining the three-dimensional structure of biological macromolecules in solution."1

The Japanese laureate Koichi Tanaka was born 1959 (43 years) in Toyama City, Japan, got the bachelor's degree of engineering at Tohoku University, and is a research and development engineer at Shimadzu Corp., Kyoto, Japan. The Daily Yomiuri On-Line carried a report2 to tell that in the 102-year history of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Tanaka was the first to win with only a bachelor's degree. The report also told the following story:

"I heard from my colleagues that Tanaka is an internationally well-known researcher. But when I asked him about it, he replied, 'No, I'm not,'" Nakao* said. "So I was very surprised when he won a Nobel Prize."

*Kunio Nakao, 36, is the chief of the general affairs section of Kratos Analytical, Shimadzu's subsidiary in Britain. He spent two years with Tanaka at Kratos.

At a press conference just after the announcement of the award by the Nobel Academy, Tanaka appeared unshaven in the gray corporate uniform and said, "If I had had any idea, I would have put on a proper suit."3 He also told that his award-winning work had been the result of his erroneous dropping of glycerol liquid on a fine cobalt powder. It was important that he made measurements using that powder without being discouraged by the error. Tanaka added citing a Japanese proverb, "It was like a horse coming out of a gourd."2 At a press conference next day, he used a better proverb, "Failure teaches success." He seems to like citing proverbs, and is a modest and witty person. The following quote would be appropriate here:

Chance favors the prepared mind. -- Louis Pasteur

  1. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2002, Nobel e-Musium, 9 Oct (2002).
  2. "Tanaka's Nobel Prize Victory for Youth," Daily Yomiuri On-line, 11 Oct (2002).
  3. "Nobels Run the Gamut from Cells to the Cosmos," Science Vol. 293, pp. 526-528 (2002).
  4. "Mr. Tanaka Wins Nobel Prize," Asahi-Shimbun, 10 Oct (2002).

7 Nov 02

65. Christmas

In Japan, Christmas is the day when many children get a present from their parents and eat a cake especially decorated for the day, irrespective of their families' being Christian or not. I'm not a Christian, but it is an occasion for me to send greetings to my overseas friends and to have a merry mind.

I remember the day of Christmas when I was three or four years old. I happened to hear my parents' talk about a Christmas present to me in the Christmas Eve, and found a toy truck of a red color near my pillow next morning. It was just what I wanted. So I was quite happy, and said to my parents, "I got this from Santa Claus," though I had already learned in the previous evening who actually was Santa Claus.

Here is a more serious thought stated in relation to Christmas: Hiroki Fukuda, one of the leader writers of the Asahi-shimbun, writes1:

My family and I have never gone to church. So we do not celebrate Christmas. We have neither decorations nor gifs. It is not that we are eager believers of a different religion but that we do not have any reason to celebrate it. However, such a family seems to be the minority, . . .

Skipping Christmas
Grisham's Skipping Christmas

Then he refers to John Grisham's novel "Skipping Christmas," which describes how an American couple gets the increasing pressure from their neighbors after deciding to go on a trip without doing Christmas. Finally Fukuda gives a rhetorical question, "Is a different belief not rejected but admitted in the society of Japan to make it possible for the minority to be able to live together with the majority?" This is an important question not only in Japan but also in any country that claims to stand for democracy, and hopefully in the world over.

  1. H. Fukuda, "Datsu Kurisumasu (Coming off Christmas)," Asahi-shimbun, Evening edition, 19 Dec. (2002) In Japanese.
  2. J. Grisham,"Skipping Christmas" (Doubleday, New York, 2001).

21 Dec 02

66. The Clever Crow

In August 2002, Alex Weir, Jackie Chappell and Alex Kacelnik at the University of Oxford, UK, published a paper1 in Science about the experimental finding that a captive female New Caledonian crow had bent wires to make hooks appropriate to retrieve food from a cylinder. This is the first time any animal has been found to show some understanding of cause and effect, and to make a new tool for a specific task.2

In relation to this report, Vishwas Parekh, an Indian scientist, sent a letter3 to Science to notify readers about the Indian folk story of a smart crow. It is the same story as we find in Aesop's Fables:

The Crow and the Pitcher4

A Crow perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Parekh was wondering if Weir and his coworkers could try out this experiment with a host of New Caledonian and perhaps some Indian crows. I am wondering if Aesop or a later author included the story of “The Crow and the Pitcher” in Aesop's Fables taking it from Indian folk stories.

Here is also a Japanese poem about the cleverness of the crow (my English translation of it follows down below):

Minufuri wo
shite mo karasu wa
mite orinu
hito wa karasu ni
manabisi naramu
   -- Hiro-o Takemoto “Kusagi no Hana no Ki” (2001)5

Though I pretended
not seeing him,
a crow was looking at me.
Humans must have learned
from crows.

  1. A. A. S. Weir, J. Chappell and A. Kacelnik, “Shaping of hooks in New Caledonian crows,” Science Vol. 297, No. 5583, p. 981 (2002).
  2. “Birds Are Found to Be Clever Tool Makers” (Univ. Oxford News Releases, 9 Aug 2002).
  3. V. Parekh, “Smart crows win out,” Science Vol. 299, No. 5603, p. 45 (2003).
  4. Aesop's Fables: Online Collection.
  5. Cited from M. O-oka, “Oriori no uta (Poems of the Seasons),” Asahi-Shimbun (8 Oct. 2002).

13 Jan 03

67. Breaking Up of Columbia

On February 2, 2003, media reported this sad news: Re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the Space shuttle Columbia broke up and disintegrated high above Texas, and all of seven astronauts were killed.

For the 1986 accident of the Space shuttle Challenger, the Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman joined the survey commission and found the cause.1 He made a demonstration at a commission meeting by dipping an O-ring sample (which he had brought secretly) in ice water (which he had asked for drinking). It clearly showed how the O-ring used at a junction was weak at low temperature. This was the typical style of Feynman’s doing things.

I sincerely wish that another Feynman clarify the cause of the Columbia disaster soon.

  1. R. P. Feynman, “What Do You Care Other People Think?” Part 2 (Norton, New York, 1988).

2 Feb 03

Related sites

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

68. Missing Day Story

In October 2002, a friend of mine and eager reader of the Bible was interested in the newspaper article that appeared many years ago. He told me as follows:

The article reported about a computation of the positions of the sun, the moon and planets far into the future for the space project. The computation worked only when scientists took into account “a missing day” described in the Bible. Just one missing day was derived from the sun’s standing still for 23 hours and 20 minutes from the book of Joshua and ten degrees of the sun’s backward movement (40 minutes) from the second book of the Kings.

He wanted to get the original article in the newspaper Spencer Evening World, and asked me for help. I requested a copy of the article to the editor of the newspaper by e-mail.

In February 2003, I received a mail package from the Spencer Evening World. It contained copies of three materials: a column of the newspaper dated October 10, 1969, an explanation by Editor Emeritus and a letter from NASA’s Public Affairs office in Washington, D. C.

The column is named “Mary Kay’s Kollum.” The author Mary Kathryn Bryan cites the article of unknown origin. The article in turn cites the story told by Mr. Harold Hill, President of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, Md. The story told there is the same as that my friend told me.

Editor Emeritus of the Spencer Evening World writes that they received thousands of inquiries about this column story and that they contacted NASA at least twice over a period of time. As any person with reasonable scientific mind expects, NASA’s reply letter tells as follows:

There is no truth to the recurring story that NASA uncovered “a lost day” in the movement of the Earth. Although planetary positions are used to help determine spacecraft orbits, we have been unable to learn of any computations in the space program that revealed a “a lost day” as has been reported in a number of places.

The columnist is to be reproached for writing a fake story or a joke in such a manner as to sound to be the truth to religious people. However, it is good that at the Spencer Evening World they send a copy of the column to inquirers together with NASA’s reply even after more than 30 years.

23 Feb 03

69. Uncertainty Principle in Life

The uncertainty principle, proposed by the physicist Werner Heisenberg, refers to the impossibility of making simultaneous measurements of both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle to arbitrary precision. The uncertainty arises because to detect the particle, radiation must be bounced off it; the process itself disturbs the particle's position.

On the other hand, "The Principle of Uncertainty" is the title of a 2002 Portuguese-French film (the original Portuguese title is "O Princípio da Incerteza"). The director of the film is 94-year old Manoel de Oliveira, who made "The Princess of Cleves" in 1999. The story of the film is not related to physics, but goes as follows1,2:

António, the son of a wealthy family, and José, the son of the housekeeper Celsa are good friends. By Celsa's arrangement, however, António marries Camila, with whom José had always been in love. Vanessa, José's partner in criminal business, starts to have affairs with António.  ...

The film includes philosophical conversations, good camera work depicting beautiful towns in Douro Valley of Portugal, and the effective use of Nicolo Paganini's "24 Caprice." The actress Leonor Baldaque plays the role of the heroine Camila well expressing the uncertainty between angelic and witch-like characters. The uncertainty is considered to be the result of fighting with class differences in the society.

The original work of this film is the novel "Jóia de Familia (Family Treasure)" by the Portuguese woman writer Augustina Bessa-Luís, who is still writing at the age of 80. The high productivity of such artists as Oliveira and Bessa-Luís gives stimulus to senior people.

  1. O Princípio da Incerteza."
  2. Film: O Princípio da Incerteza.

14 Jun 03

70. "I Could Die after Completing This Film."

To many of us, "an international spy who worked for Communist Party and Kremlin" may give the image of a cruel person. In the 2003 film "Spy Sorge" directed by Masahiro Shinoda, however, Richard Sorge and Hotsumi Ozaki are convincingly depicted as fresh, warm and sincere persons who fought against the dangerous political movement before the Second World War for the benefit of the general public without caring about their own perils.

The film, though a little lengthy, is entertaining and gives the audience many heavy problems to think about, for example, war and peace, the purpose of life, the politics and economics of the present world, etc.

According to the leaflet of the film,1 Shinoda was shocked to read the newspaper article about Sorge plot at the age of 11, and while working on this film, he said, "I could die after completing this film." It is wonderful that a person can so strongly put his heart in his work, just like the characters of this film. I say without hesitation that this is one of the best films, and give Shinoda a big applause for making this film.

  1. "Spy Sorge" (Toho Shuppan, Tokyo, 2003)

23 Jun 03

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