Physicists in Wartime Japan; The Science of War: Nuclear History; Exclusive Online Issues; by Laurie M. Brown and Yoichiro Nambu; 6 Page(s)
Between 1935 and 1955 a handful of Japanese men turned their minds to the unsolved problems of theoretical physics. They taught themselves quantum mechanics, constructed the quantum theory of electromagnetism and postulated the existence of new particles. Much of the time their lives were in turmoil, their homes demolished and their bellies empty. But the worst of times for the scientists was the best of times for the science. After the war, as a numbed Japan surveyed the devastation, its physicists brought home two Nobel Prizes.
Their achievements were all the more remarkable in a society that had encountered the methods of science only decades earlier. In 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry's warships forced the country open to international trade, ending two centuries of isolation. Japan realized that without modern technology it was militarily weak. A group of educated samurai forced the ruling shogun to step down in 1868 and reinstated the emperor, who had until then been only a figurehead. The new regime sent young men to Germany, France, England and America to study languages, science, engineering and medicine and founded Western-style universities in Tokyo, Kyoto and elsewhere.