IN OCTOBER, HITOSHI MURAYAMA, director of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, gave a keynote address at a celebration organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). In it, he described the ability of basic scientific research to bridge the differences of nations and find peace
This is a topic that Dr. Murayama knows well. As the director of Tokyo-based Kavli IPMU, he runs an institute where diversity – both in terms of nationality and scientific expertise – is a fundamental tenet. More than 60 percent of IPMU researchers are foreign to Japan, and the institute is made up of scientists from fields as diverse as string theory, mathematics, particle physics and astronomy, all working together to tackle the biggest questions in cosmology.
When he first envisioned Kavli IPMU back in 2007, Dr. Murayama sought to build a research institute open to young and ambitious scientists regardless of their origins. As the institute celebrates its seventh anniversary, his dream has become a reality. Today, Kavli IPMU unites scientists from countries around the world in the common goal of unraveling the mysteries of the universe.
In a recent interview with The Kavli Foundation, Dr. Murayama reflected on the role of science in bridging nations, how Kavli IPMU can serve as a model for future international institutes, and a proposed science project that would take international collaboration to the next level.
The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
THE KAVLI FOUNDATION: In your address at the United Nations, you said that peace is about different nations working together toward a common goal. What makes science in particular a good common goal for peace?
TKF: The international nature of science means that to answer those profound questions, you’ve worked with people from all over the world – many of whom have difficult histories. In your UN address, you spoke about working with an Israeli who witnessed a suicide bombing, an Iranian who fled the Islamic revolution, a Ukrainian whose mother had to flee Crimea, and others. When you bring people with such difficult histories together to do science, are those shared hardships something that you can feel? Is there an effect on the science or the process of science?
MURAYAMA: To tell you the truth, I don’t think that this type of hardship necessarily affects the science. In science, it’s hard to tell who’s had hardship and who hasn’t. It may be the case that people who went through such hardship may be a little bit more devoted to science because they had to live through the hardship to get to where they are, to get to do science. But, as I said, it’s very hard to tell. The fact that it’s hard to tell might actually be one of the great things about science. In science, everybody is equal, no matter where they’re from.
TKF: You also said in your address that raising the standard of living around the world requires bringing scientific knowledge to all people. What are the most important messages for scientists to share?
MURAYAMA: In my mind, people need to be more aware that the resources of the world – energy, water and the like – are not infinite and need to be conserved. But unless scientists are vocal about this problem and try to educate others about it, most people will probably remain unaware of this. That’s especially true in the United States, where an abundance of resources often hides the problem. This is an area where scientists play a very important role in making people aware of how they can maintain or even improve the standard of living in the long term through their individual actions.
“In science, everybody is equal, no matter where they’re from.” —Hitoshi Murayama
TKF: Kavli IMPU is a veritable United Nations of scientists, hosting researchers from all over the world. Are there successes and challenges that Kavli IPMU has experienced that can serve as an example for future such endeavors?
MURAYAMA: To tell you the truth, I’ve actually seen very few problems in getting people from different countries to work together at IPMU. As long as they’re talking about science and research, they really don’t care where others are from. But there are certainly benefits. Even though we all speak the same language of science, the way people have been educated is slightly different based on where they were trained. This is true in slightly annoying ways – for example, if you write down numbers and digits in Europe and the United States, you use a period and comma in opposite places. But it’s also true in bigger, more important ways. People may approach a problem in a slightly different way, or they may be familiar with different experiments or results. Different countries also tend to have different strengths in terms of science. Bringing people together with different backgrounds, I’ve found, creates new perspective. When I talk to other people, I learn that there’s another way of looking at a problem I’ve been trying to solve. So it really does bring benefits for scientific research.
TKF: Could you describe a time when different perspectives led to a breakthrough?
MURAYAMA: I have a very nice example, although it may be more about a difference in disciplines than a difference in culture or background. Here at Kavli IPMU, we have physicists, astronomers and mathematicians all in the same institute, and every weekday at 3:00 p.m. we have tea time, where everyone is invited to discuss science in a relaxed atmosphere.
At one tea time, an American astronomer, Robert Quimby, had just read a paper from a group at Harvard that claimed the discovery of a new type of supernova – a type far brighter than ever before seen. Now, Robert knows a lot about bright supernovae because he discovered the brightest class of supernovae before this claim. From the data in the paper, he noticed that the new supernova looked exactly like a known type of supernovae, only about 30 times brighter. He felt there might be some other reason that the supernova looked so bright and started talking to other people about this at teatime.
He ended up talking to a half-German, half-British mathematician Marcus Werner who pointed out that the brightness may be due to something called gravitational lensing, meaning that if this supernova happened in a galaxy that’s perfectly lined up with another, as-yet-unseen galaxy along our line of sight, the closer galaxy would actually bend the light and act like a lens to make the supernova look much brighter. Right there at teatime, he showed that 30 times magnification in brightness is certainly possible.
But there’s a difference between something being possible mathematically and something being likely. Fortunately, there was another researcher at this teatime, a Japanese physicist Masamune Oguri who handles large datasets. He happened to know what kind of dataset this Harvard group had used, and he was able to quickly estimate how likely this type of coincidence would be. It turned out that it was very possible.
This was a moment when astronomers, mathematicians and physicists had to be present and working together to realize that the supernova might in fact not be a new type, but rather an old type that just happened to be magnified by this gravitational lensing effect. They published a paper on this work together not long after this teatime and, a year later, they actually found observational evidence there is indeed a faint galaxy that no one had noticed before, right along our line of sight to the supernova. That discovery proved what the three had together determined over tea was indeed correct. So different perspectives, all together in one place, can make for great science.
“Answering profound questions about the universe can only enrich us all.”
TKF: This week’s event at the UN coincides with CERN’s 60th anniversary. In its six decades, CERN has achieved both great science and great cooperation. What’s the next science project that will take international collaboration to the next level?
MURAYAMA: One thing I hope to see is another laboratory with a large particle accelerator. There’s an idea called the International Linear Collider. While at CERN they smash protons against protons, a linear collider would smash electrons against positrons – the antimatter version of the electron.
There’s a distinct advantage to this because a proton is a very complicated object, made of three other particles called quarks and bound together by other particles called gluons. The analogy I always use is that colliding protons is like smashing cherry pies against each other – it’s very messy and difficult to see what exactly is going on. But in the case of the International Linear Collider, the colliding particles aren’t made of other particles. So that’s like colliding two cherry pits against each other – you get a much cleaner collision, where you can tell what’s going on with much better accuracy and precision.
This is a machine that’s been talked about already for several decades in the particle physics community. It’s clear that CERN won’t be able to build it right now because they’re so busy with the Large Hadron Collider. So the hope is another country will host it, and that many other countries will come together to help build and run it. It’s just not possible for a single country to afford such a humongous machine. But through international collaboration – by bringing together many different countries and many different perspectives – so much more is possible. I believe a program like this is not only good for science, but is an important way we can build better, strong relations between nations.