2005年8月 4日 (木)

Has the planet Pluto lost its claim to fame?


Has the planet Pluto lost its claim to fame?


In Roman mythology, Pluto is the god of the underworld. Pluto is also the English name of the outermost planet in the solar system. In Japanese, we call it Meiosei.

Discovered 75 years ago, Pluto is the ninth planet from the sun. There is controversy over whether this planet really belongs to our solar system.



This controversy may be compounded by last week's announcement from an astronomy team at the California Institute of Technology that it had discovered the solar system's 10th planet.

This planet stokes our interest as inhabitants of Earth, the third planet, in knowing how many planets are really in our solar system.


The existence of the planet was confirmed by the Palomar Observatory in the United States two years ago. It was located too far to discern any details. Astronomers checked its orbit again and learned that it was circling the sun.


The planet is truly a distant one. At the farthest point in its orbit, the distance between it and the sun is nearly 100 times the distance between Earth and the sun.

It makes one revolution around the sun in about 560 years. This means that when it was at the present point the previous time, it was just before Leonardo da Vinci was born.

The International Astronomical Union is going to decide officially whether the planet belongs to our solar system.


The Chinese characters for the word planet literally translate as "vacillating star." A theory has it that the character for "vacillate" is used because planets change their positions in the sky as if vacillating. People have been charmed by their vacillating ways since ancient times.

In 1933, watching a rare celestial phenomenon in which Venus and Saturn successively circled behind the moon, Hakushu Kitahara (1885-1942) composed a poem: "As Venus went behind the moon from underneath/ Saturn made its shining way behind from above."

Another poem by Kitahara goes: "Standing around, a mother and her children/ Watched the western sky/ Where the moon held two stars."


The vacillating movements of Pluto and the new planet cannot be observed with the naked eye.

The word vacillate itself fires our imagination about celestial bodies quietly moving through the darkness of the universe.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 2(IHT/Asahi: August 3,2005)

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2005年7月30日 (土)

Astronauts feeling the `force' in outer space


Astronauts feeling the `force' in outer space


In autumn 1981, I was at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the launching of the space shuttle Columbia.



At lift-off, a huge ball of dazzling white gold light formed under the rocket's thrusters.

The next moment, the air shuddered and a tremendous shock wave reached the press section at the space center. I can still recall the vibrations that rippled through my body.


Tension, mingled with solemnity, filled the space center. In the eternal flow of time, Earth travels an orbit that has been predetermined by space dynamics, with humanity clinging to its surface. Every shuttle launch represents a dauntless challenge by humanity to break free of that law of space dynamics and trace an orbit of its own design. But some challenges have ended tragically.


On Tuesday, nearly two and a half years after Columbia's midair disintegration on Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle Discovery was launched. Among the crew is Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

"It's a dangerous mission, but it is worth the challenge in terms of what could be gained from space and the intellectual stimulation this will give the younger generation," Noguchi noted.


Fifty years ago, Japan test-launched its first domestically built "pencil rocket." What was small and crude half a century ago has now evolved into massive and highly sophisticated spacecraft.

No human endeavor is ever completely error-free. For now, however, all I pray for is that Noguchi and his fellow Discovery crew members will fully enjoy their time in space and return safely when their mission is complete.


One of the Apollo astronauts, reminiscing about his mission to the moon, said something to the effect, "In outer space, there is a `force' that transcends everything. There is neither beginning nor end. All that exists is a `will' that created this wonderful universe."

I wonder if Noguchi has also felt that force in outer space.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 28(IHT/Asahi: July 29,2005)

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2005年6月27日 (月)

Firefly experts tend to be a breed apart


Firefly experts tend to be a breed apart


"Hotaru" (fireflies), a scholarly book published in 1935, is regarded as the bible of firefly experts. Turning the pages, I was taken aback by the author's near-obsessive love for these bugs.



Sakyo Kanda, the author, was a bona fide eccentric. According to Masayasu Konishi, an entomologist, Kanda had zero people skills. That didn't bother Kanda at all. Also, he never had a steady job nor income. Whenever he caught an error in someone's academic paper, he attacked it relentlessly, even if the author happened to be a big gun in the world of academia.

He never married, insisting he intended to "form a suicide pact with fireflies."


Even though he constantly bemoaned his misfortune, his scholastic achievements were hailed abroad. A British academic society practically begged him to become a member, and he was asked to give a lecture to members of the Japanese imperial family. But he snubbed both, declaring his disdain for "authority" in any form. He died at age 65 in 1939.


One of his achievements was the discovery that the genji botaru (luciola cruciata) in western Japan glowed every two seconds, whereas the same species found in eastern Japan did so only every four seconds.

The mystery continued to baffle post-World War II researchers, the majority of whom now believe that the time lag owes to differences in the genetic makeup of the western and eastern fireflies.

But Norio Abe, a civil servant in the employ of Tokyo's Itabashi Ward, has challenged this with his own theory. "East or west, they are the same bug," he asserted. "Fireflies glow at shorter intervals when the temperature rises."


A college dropout, Abe was a member of a motorcycle gang while in high school. In Itabashi Ward, his job is to breed fireflies to teach the importance of ecology to residents. He fell in love with his work.

This spring, he received a doctorate from Ibaraki University for his dissertation. Titled "Hito no Kansei to Hotaru no Hikari" (Human sensibility and the glow of fireflies), it was a compilation of his research findings over 16 years.

"As a researcher, I certainly don't fit the mold," he said. "But I must say I find Kanda's rebelliousness really cool."


Fireflies have fascinated people since time immemorial. Their mysterious glow is beautiful and bewitching. Our ancestors associated it with love and the human soul. Their glow can sometimes even change people's lives, too.


--The Asahi Shimbun, June 19(IHT/Asahi: June 27,2005)

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2005年6月19日 (日)

Drama unfolding over trapped salamanders


Drama unfolding over trapped salamanders


The salamander is an amphibian that lives quietly. The poet Mokichi Saito (1882-1953) once wrote about it: "As I kept watching the fish/ The mud-colored salamander remained motionless/ A way of struggling to live."

This poem can be found in "Shakko" (Red light), one of his famous collections.



Salamanders, which are almost always motionless, don't usually make a sound. But a group of giant salamanders has been seen trying desperately to creep up floodgates built in the Izushigawa river in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture.

The floodgates rise to about 1.5 meters. Those who spotted 10 or so salamanders just below the gates one night said the amphibians appeared to measure 40-70 centimeters from head to tail.


According to their accounts, the salamanders are all moving their short limbs busily not to be swept away by the current. At times, seemingly standing up, they attach themselves to the vertical planks of the floodgates, but they drop off soon.

A drama is unfolding-one that involves a uniquely shaped creature, known as a "living fossil" and designated as a special natural treasure by the state. It's as if the salamanders are trying to ensure their very survival.


Officials of the Hyogo prefectural government have confirmed that more than 200 salamanders are gathering near the floodgates. They say they will shortly transfer the salamanders to a pond or a fish farm to protect them from the effect of scheduled repair work on the nearby banks.


The salamander species, the largest amphibian creature, was introduced to Western Europe by Philip Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a German doctor assigned to the Dutch trading post on Dejima, a tiny island in Nagasaki Bay.

Von Siebold, a collector of Japanese artifacts, acquired some salamanders near the Suzuka mountain pass that now marks the boundary between Mie and Shiga prefectures. He was accompanying the head of the Dutch trading post on the latter's trip to Edo to pay a courtesy call on the shogunate government.

He traveled on to Edo, returned to Nagasaki, and then took the salamanders on his ship to the Netherlands, Jiro Obara says in "Oosanshouo" (Giant salamander), a book published by Dobutsusha. Von Siebold kept the salamanders for more than four years.


Novelist Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993) is best known as the author of "Sanshouo" (Salamander), a humorous and pathetic story about a salamander that finds itself trapped in a rock chamber when its head grows larger than the chamber's exit.

"The salamander was sad," the story begins. Along the way, Ibuse rubs it in with a lament: "Ah, I am chillingly lonely."

Aside from whether someone will write a story about the salamanders struggling in the Izushigawa river, I hope the reality will be a happy ending for them.


--The Asahi Shimbun, June 15(IHT/Asahi: June 16,2005)

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2005年5月18日 (水)

Another global threat: Looming `water wars'


Another global threat: Looming `water wars'


The 19th-century Romanian national poet Mihai Eminescu once praised the constancy of the Danube. He wrote that the river flows the same way, if the weather is good or bad, unlike human beings whose inconstancy sends them roaming the Earth. (From a compendium of the world's great poems, published by Heibonsha.)



Originating in Germany's Black Forest, the Danube meanders for nearly 2,900 kilometers through Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania until it empties into the Black Sea. Japanese meteorologists predict the amount of water in the waterway will diminish by more than 20 percent by the end of this century.

The prediction is among findings of a study in which researchers attempted to forecast how climate change brought on by global warming will affect the volume of water flowing in the world's great rivers.


From ancient times, civilizations sprung up around major rivers. According to the study, the Euphrates river in Mesopotamia, Iraq will have about 40 percent reduced water flow.

On the other hand, gains of 10 to 15 percent are forecast for the Nile, the Ganges and China's Yellow River.


Sometimes, we hear warnings that a mass scramble for limited water resources worldwide could spark ``water wars.''

In Japan, which doesn't have major water arteries like the Danube, which flow through several countries, the looming crisis may feel like someone else's affair.

But just consider how much water is consumed to commercialize the vast quantities of foodstuffs and industrial products that are imported by Japan.

It doesn't take much to see that the looming crisis will also affect Japan in a big way.


In his poem, Eminescu went on to praise things that remain unchanged, existing as they were in ancient times. In this regard, he cites the sea, rivers, towns, the wilderness, the moon and the sun, and forests and spring.


Sad to say, the era in which we could believe in the everlasting immutability of Mother Earth and big rivers has passed. The time has come for nations to pledge across borders that they will refrain from altering nature without justification.


--The Asahi Shimbun, May 17(IHT/Asahi: May 18,2005)

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2005年5月 4日 (水)

Too fixated on blood types to give a donation



Too fixated on blood types to give a donation


After nearly a year, a craze for TV variety shows about the ABO blood groups seems to have finally subsided. At least this spring, we are no longer being inundated with prime-time programs claiming to explain how people's personality and behavior are influenced by their blood types.



Questions have been raised repeatedly since before World War II about pigeonholing people into the four categories of A, B, O and AB blood groups and judging their character traits accordingly. But no matter how often such attempts were dismissed for their dubious scientific worth or criticized for encouraging groundless and biased stereotyping, the subject always resurfaced after a while for avid public consumption.


It would be nothing more than a harmless pastime to guess the blood groups of famous historic figures: Murasaki Shikibu (from around the 11th century) must be A, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) must be O.

In the latest craze, however, type-B people somehow became the target of constant ridicule. In show after show, there were ``experiments'' conducted on entertainment personalities and preschoolers to ``prove'' the personal idiosyncracies of B subjects and deride them.


Between last spring and February this year, as many as 200 complaints were filed with the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization. Many viewers were upset with the TV shows for using the blood groups to pass judgments on people. And concerned parents complained that children were getting into fights because they believed what they watched on TV.

Apparently, many people found the programs offensive even though they knew they were watching them only for mindless entertainment.


The ABO blood groups seem to be a popular subject in South Korea, too, but nowhere else in the world do people lap it up as in Japan. Yet, the public's interest in blood donation is ebbing. About 5.6 million Japanese donate blood annually now, but this number is less than 70 percent of what it was 20 years ago.


Early spring is said to be the leanest season for blood donations, perhaps because this is the start of the fiscal and scholastic years and people are on the move. This year especially, people with pollen allergies seem to be staying away from blood donation centers. To make matters worse, new donation rules will come into effect next month in wake of the recent Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease scare.

The whole nation seems to be anemic this spring. According to the Japanese Red Cross Society, the public's attention never turned to blood donation even at the height of the ABO craze on the boob tube.


--The Asahi Shimbun, April 24(IHT/Asahi: May 2,2005)

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2005年4月19日 (火)

Robotic troops symbolic of U.S. attitude in Iraq


Robotic troops symbolic of U.S. attitude in Iraq


A robot soldier detects a person hiding in the shadows. It takes aim and blasts away, taking yet another human life.

While that scene may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, it could soon become a reality on the battlefield. The U.S. Army is planning to deploy mobile robotic weapons for the enforcement of security in Iraq.



America's robot is about the same size as a go-cart. It is equipped with a machine gun and a night-vision camera with zoom lens. The robot can travel over rough terrain and burst through barbed-wire fences. God help anyone stalked by one of these soulless machines.


A robot doesn't need food or training. If it is attacked and destroyed, all that's left is a broken heap of scrap metal. To the U.S. Army, which continues to lose its men and women in Iraq, this is the perfect substitute for a shrinking pool of human soldiers, especially as the enlistment rate continues to slide.


At the Aichi Expo 2005, a musical trumpet-playing robot is the star of the show. And robots that vacuum are also now available.

But the news that combat robots are the next big thing depresses me.


``A robot shall neither harm nor kill a human,'' says Article 13 of the imaginary Robot Law instituted by the late cartoonist Osamu Tezuka when he created ``Tetsuwan Atomu'' (Astro Boy) half a century ago.

The late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov also described his Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which begins: ``A robot must never harm human beings.''


Science has now allowed humans to create these life-threatening robots. Even though they are remote-controlled by human operators, is there any guarantee that combat robots will be able to tell soldiers from civilians? Won't they add to the already terrible toll the war has taken on noncombatant Iraqis?

These robotic weapons are a symbol of America's attitude in this war in Iraq. It is only concerned about preventing harm to or the death of its own soldiers.


-The Asahi Shimbun, April 18(IHT/Asahi: April 19,2005)

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