Japan was enjoying what seemed to many a rare piece of good news on Wednesday evening as two of its scientists shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with an American researcher for their work on binding carbon atoms.
Ei’ichi Negishi, Akira Suzuki, both of Japan, and Richard Heck of the United States, have been awarded the $1.5 million prize by the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm for finding ways to make atoms stick together – a process that has applications in fighting cancer, HIV, and herpes.
Special editions of newspapers – reserved for only the biggest events – were distributed across Tokyo to announce the Japanese scientists’ victory, and TV stations interviewed commuters on their way home for their reactions. One office worker comments typified the mood, saying, “I’m happy to hear it – there doesn’t seem to be lot of good news lately.”
The domestic media in recent weeks have been full of stories of political stagnation and scandal, the territorial spat with an increasingly assertive China, and an economic recovery that appears to be stuttering.
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Akira Suzuki, professor emeritus at Hokkaido University on Japan’s northernmost island, told reporters, “I hope this encourages young people to take an interest in science and technology, and to enter the fields themselves.”
Ei’ichi Negishi, who is based in the US at Purdue University, said he was asleep when the call came from the academy, but that he was “extremely happy” to win the prize he had dreamed for “half a century.”
Prime Minister Naoto Kan sent his congratulations to both winners, and called Professor Suzuki in Hokkaido. The professor reportedly told Kan that Japan needs to make better use of science and technology to safeguard its future.
Previous Japanese winners: 2008’s Osamu Shimomura, and 2002’s Koichi Tanaka – known as the "salaryman Nobel winner" for his everyman demeanor, company employee status and common name – also offered their congratulations.
“My goal is about half-way completed, I would like to keep working for a few more years yet,” said Professor Negishi, 75.
All three of the winners already have chemical reactions named after them, and worked entirely independently of each other – an unusual situation for joint winners.