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 © 2003-2004 by Tatsuo Tabata

Contents of This Page

71. "Summertime"
72. Accurate Painting
73. Rare Events
74. Repetition of the Same Error
75. Better Intelligibility among Non-native Speakers
76. I've Read Books Written by Two among Three of Them!
77. Steven Weinberg's Golden Lessons to Students
78. Japanese People's Souls for Peace
79. Passage of Time
80. Sleep and Insight

To All the Contents of Femto-Column

71. "Summertime"

The four-Oscar actress Katherine Hepburn1,2 died on June 29, 2003, at the age of 96. The memorial broadcasting of the 1955 film Summertime3 was made by NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai; Japan Broadcasting Company) on July 4. The Japanese title of this film is Ryojo (Traveler's sentiment). In Japan this film seems to be one of the most popular works of Hepburn. I had just wanted to see it for the third time. The reason is that it was filmed in location in Venice, where I visited in May of this year. After seeing the place with my own eyes and learning some Italian words, I got a new vivid impression from the film. The love story of the film ending in separation was moving even in the third visit.

  1. See for an obituary: "Katharine Hepburn dead at 96" (, Jun. 30, 2003).
  2. See for photos and biography: Katharine Houghton Hepburn
  3. A plot synopsis is given: "Summertime" (Britmovie).

14 Jul 03

72. Accurate Painting

There was a piece of news about one of Vincent Van Gogh's famous paintings at the Nature web site.1 It can be summarized as follows:

Gogh made the work "Moonrise" in a village in France during the summer of 1889 while staying in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France. From the position of the full moon near a cliff shown in the painting, an astronomer Donald Olson of Southwest Texas State University and his colleagues found by calculation2 that the exact time of painting was 21:08, July 13. On July 13 this year, which was the 150th anniversary of Gogh's birth, the same scene was seen at the same position; it happens only once every 19 years.

It was a surprise to me that Gogh's painting depicted the scene so accurately to allow the astronomers to make this finding. I had been supposing that Gogh had valued his own impression rather than accuracy in making his works and that he had artistically modified real scenes.

  1. "Moon dates Van Gogh," Nature Science Update, 13 June 2003.
  2. D. W. Olson, R. L. Doescher, and M. S. Olson, "Dating van Gogh's Moonrise" Sky and Telescope, July, 54-55 (2003).

15 Aug 03

73. Rare Events

Mars and Moon
Mars and the moon, taken at 21:55, September 8, 2003, in Sakai, Osaka.

H. G. Wells wrote in his 1898 scientific fiction "The War of the World":

I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight, and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenith-ward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed.

That was the eve of a Martian invasion to Earth in that fiction. In reality, especially many telescopes and naked eyes were pointed toward Mars in the evening of August 27, 2003. This was the occasion of the historical event that Mars and Earth passed closer together than at any time in almost 60,000 years.

The distance of the closest approach of the two planets was 56 million kilometers. The last time the two planets were this close together was in the period when Neanderthals roamed Earth, on September 12, 57,617 BC, to be precise. There will not be another close approach for 284 years.1

Thus, the event of August 27, 2003, was quite a rare one. In a strict sense, however, everyone's experience on every day is the first happening since the birth of the universe billions of years ago. We must therefore value our daily life and make efforts to live peacefully on this planet without destroying it by wars or ecologically bad effects.

  1. "Mars makes close approach to Earth," BBC News, Science/Nature, Aug. 27, 2003.

28 Aug 03

74. Repetition of the Same Error

After a seven-month examination about the cause of the disaster of space shuttle Columbia, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) released its final report on August 26, 2003. The report concluded that a piece of Columbia's foam insulation that had fallen off during launch was indeed to blame. The report also said that NASA had done little to improve shuttle safety since it had lost the shuttle Challenger in 1986, mentioning a space agency bureaucracy compromised by lax safety standards, slipshod management and dwindling funds as significant factors in the disaster.1

In the report for the Challenger accident, the organizational problems within NASA were also pointed out. In a sense, therefore, the loss of Columbia was the repetition of the same error. Such a repetition can occur only for those who do not carefully learn from experiences. At NASA they should seriously learn from the two disasters and reports to continue the space program. -- I am afraid that in a certain country there are many politicians who do not learn from the history of the aggressive war started by that country. --

Note added later

In the earlier essay of this column entitled "Breaking Up of Columbia" I wished that another Richard Feynman would soon clarify the cause of the Columbia disaster reminding his famous demonstration of an O-ring in ice water in the 1986 Challenger investigation. Actually there was another Feynman in the Columbia investigation.1 The panelist Douglas Osheroff, a Nobel laureate and a physicist like Feynman, demolished NASA's theory of how the foam broke off the fuel tank doing an experiment with a fairly simple setup.

  1. "Concerns raised that changes in NASA won't last,", Science & Space, Aug. 26, 2003.
  2. "'I think I added something'," Science Vol. 301, No.5638 p. 1300 (2003).

5 Sep 03; Note, 12 Sep 03

75. Better Intelligibility among Non-native Speakers

Some years ago, a professor from Beijing said to me, "The speed of your English speaking is just good for me to understand. So we, non-native English speakers, understand each other better in English than we understand native speakers." I quite agreed with her. However, the reason for easier communication in English among non-native English speakers seems to be not only their speed of speaking but also their accent.

A study related to the above phenomenon was recently reported.1 Tessa Bent and Ann Bradlow from Northwestern University in Illinois made an experiment with students at an American summer school for learning English.2 Their subjects included Chinese, Koreans, Bengalis, Hindi speakers, Japanese, Romanians, Slovakians, Spaniards and Thais, as well as American English speakers. Participants took turns speaking and listening. They were recorded saying simple English phrases such as "The dog came back," and assessed for their intelligibility.

The results showed that non-natives found each other at least as intelligible as native English speakers, regardless of whether they shared a first language. Bent and Bradlow suggest that there may be features of the target language that all non-natives omit.

  1. "Accents have advantages: A foreign tongue can be easier to understand in the mouth of a non-native," Nature science Update, Sep. 8, 2003.
  2. T. Bent and A. R. Bradlow, "The interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Vol. 114, pp. 1600-1610 (2003).

6 Oct 03

76. I've Read Books Written by Two among Three of Them!

The 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics has been shared by three low-temperature theorists for their pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids.1 The laureates are Alexei A. Abrikosov of Argonne National Laboratory, USA, Vitaly L. Ginzburg of P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute, Russia, and Anthony J. Leggett of the University of Illinois at Urbana, USA.

I have not learned low-temperature physics, but have known all of those names. Possibly I learned the name of Abrikosov from the titles of papers a friend of mine, Professor Kazumi Maki at the University of South California, published when he was young. Kazumi has also made a lot of contributions to the theory of superconductors. So, browsing the titles of his many publications in an abstract journal was a good stimulus to me in my young days.

I learned the names of Ginzburg and Leggett from their books I read more than 15 years ago. Both of them wrote about the important problems of physics yet to be solved.2,3 They have wonderful perception not only for the field of their own work but also for all the fields of physics. Ginzburg's book even refers to the problems of astrophysics. I liked their books very much, and learned a great deal from these.

Note added later

It is also a possibility that I learned the name of Abrikosov from a good book on low-temperature physics written by Kurt Mendelssohn for lay persons.4

  1. The Nobel Prize in Physics 2003 (Nobel e-Muesum, 7 Oct 2003).
  2. V. L. Ginzburg, "Physics and Astrophysics: A Selection of Key Problems," Translator, O. Glebov; Translation Editor, G. R. ter Haar (Pergamon, Oxford, 1985).
  3. A. J. Leggett, "The Problems of Physics" (Oxford University Press, New York, 1987).
  4. K. Mendelsohn, "The Quest for Absolute Zero:The Meaning of Low Temperature Physics," 2nd edition (Taylor & Francis, London, 1977)

8 Oct 03

77. Steven Weinberg's Golden Lessons to Students

On the Concepts page of a recent issue of Nature, the Nobel-Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg gives an essay entitled "Four Golden Lessons."1 These lessons are important pieces of advice to students at the start of their scientific careers. I would like to cite the four items here:

  1. No one knows everything, and you don't have to.
  2. Go for the messes -- that's where the action is.
  3. Get used to spending most of your time not being creative, to being becalmed on the ocean of scientific knowledge.
  4. Learn something about the history of science, or at a minimum the history of your own branch of science.

Weinberg explains these lessons understandably using his own experiences, a historical fact and the role of science in cultural context. I strongly recommend to every science student and young scientist to read this essay.

  1. S. Weinberg, Nature Vol. 426, p. 389 (2003).

9 Dec 03

78. Japanese People's Souls for Peace

On December 9, 2003, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his cabinet decided to send Japan's self-defense forces (SDF) to Iraq. The decision is a gross turning point to make the SDF pave its largest overseas mission since the end of World War II. After the decision, Koizumi said, "We are not going to war." Owing to the security situation in Iraq, however, the SDF may be drawn into combat.

Article nine of the nation's constitution forbids the forces from waging war overseas. Therefore, the dispatch of the SDF violates the pacifist article, which is, so to say, the treasure of the world. Not only Koizumi and his cabinet but also the Japanese public, which supported Liberal Democratic Party for many years, are responsible for this bad decision.

Thomas Paine started the first of his "American Crisis" pamphlets, published in 1776, by the sentence: "These are the times that try men's souls." Now we should say, "These are the times that try Japanese people's souls."

21 Dec 03

79. Passage of Time

One feels the passage of time faster when one gets older. I learned that this was due to the lowering of metabolism with increasing age.

In a year-end essay in a recent issue of the Asahi-Shimbun, the writer Nobuko Takagi referred to her own supposition that the length of a year felt by a person might be proportional to the ratio of the amount of the person's experience in that year to the total amount of experience since the birth. This ratio is approximately proportional to the reciprocal of the person's age.

Then at older ages, Takagi proposes, we should forget the past experience or our age to replace it by the expected future experience or the expected residual life to feel the passage of time longer. I don't know if her supposition is physiologically correct or if the replacement proposed really works. However, it is an interesting idea, and is a good suggestion for how to live at older ages.

Note added later

From Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara's essay in the Asahi dated January 10, 2004, I learned that the French psychologist Pierre Janet (1859-1947) had proposed a hypothesis about the psychological time similar to the one described above. According to Janet's words, the psychological length, for a person, of a definite time interval is proportional to the reciprocal of the length of his or her life until then.

30 Dec 03

80. Sleep and Insight

About his days of attacking the problem of the origin of nuclear force, the Nobel-Prize winning physicist Hideki Yukawa wrote:

... when I lay down in bed at night, interesting ideas entered my head. They seemed to grow, unhampered by the rows of equations. Then I became tired, and eventually fell off to sleep. When I thought about those ideas the next morning, I found that they were all worthless.1

Yukawa's finding of the worthlessness of the ideas he had the previous night might have been due to the insight inspired by sleep.

Recently German psychologists, Wagner and his coworkers, published the results of experiments to show a facilitating role of sleep in a process of insight.2 In their experiments subjects performed a Number Reduction Task originally developed by Thurstone and Thurstone.3

An example trial of Task is as follows:

1 1 4 4 9 4 9 4
   1 9 1 4 4 1 9

A string, given to the subjects, of eight digits (the first line of the above example) is always composed of the digits '1', '4' and '9'. The subjects have to determine only a digit coming at the end of a reduced string ('9' at the end of the second line in the above example). This can be achieved by sequentially processing the digits pair-wise from left to right according to the two simple rules: (1) The 'same rule' states that the result of two identical digits is just this digit. (2) The 'different rule' states that the result of two non-identical digits is the remaining third digit of this three-digit system.

The first pair is the first two digits, '1' and '1,' of the first string. This yields the first number '1' of the reduced string according to the 'same rule'. Hereafter the number just gotten and the number at its upper right make a next pair. Thus the first digit '1' of the reduced string and the third number '4' of the initial string yields '9' for the second digit of the reduced string according to the 'different rule'. ... Finally the subjects get the last digit '9' as the solution.

Not mentioning to the subjects, Wagner and his coworkers generated the strings in such a way that the last three responses ('4', '1' and '9' of the reduced string in the above example) mirrored the previous three responses (i.e., the last three digits were the same digits as the previous three appearing in the reverse order). This implies that the second digit of the reduced string always gave the required final solution. The subjects who gain insight into this hidden rule abruptly cut short sequential responding, and get the solution immediately after the second response. In the experiments of Wagner and his coworkers, more than twice as many subjects gained insight into the hidden rule after sleep as after wakefulness.

An introductory article4 to the paper of Wagner and his coworkers gives the following instances of scientific insights and artistic creativity gained by sleep:


  • Friedlich Kekule's ring-like structure of benzene.
  • Otto Loewi's principle of chemical neurotransmission.
  • Elias Howe's sewing machine.
  • Herman Hilprecht's translation of cuneiform script on the 'stone of Nebuchadnezzar'.
  • Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table.


  • Robert Louis Stevenson's key scenes in the novel The strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem Kubla Khan.
  • Giuseppe Tartini's violin sonata Il trillo del Diavolo (Devil's Trill).
  • Arthur Benson's poem The Phoenix.
  • Jules Massenet's several operatic compositions.

Let's have a good sleep!

  1. "Hideki Yukawa 'Tabibito' (The Traveler)," Translated by L. Brown and R. Yoshida (World Scientific, Singapore, 2004).
  2. U. Wagner, S. Gais, H. Haider, R. Verleger and J. Born, Nature Vol. 427, p. 352 (2004).
  3. L. L. Thurstone and T. G. Thurstone, Psychometr. Monogr. Vol. 2, p. 94 (1941).
  4. P. Maquet and P. Ruby, Nature Vol. 427, p. 304 (2004).

16 Feb 04

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