5th Terasaki Chair Left Science to Tell its Story

5th Terasaki Chair Left Science to Tell its Story

Shigeru Nakayama, 5th Terasaki Chair (Photo by Lorena Olvera)

Shigeru Nakayama, a historian of science, joins UCLA as the fifth Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations.

So far, I have written about my experience and account of Hiroshima a couple of times in Japanese

Shigeru Nakayama, an eminent historian of science, has joined UCLA as the fifth Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations for the 2008-2009 academic year, succeeding Thomas Rimer who served as Chair for three years. The author of 30 books, he may be best known in the English-speaking world for his five-volume Social History of Science and Technology in Contemporary Japan, a standard reference. He has written on many subjects including Chinese planetary theory and Hideyo Noguchi, the bacteriologist known for his research on syphilis and yellow fever.

"I would like to translate Hideyo Noguchi, my only work on medical history and the only evaluation of his work on the history of science," Nakayama explains in an email message.

At UCLA, Nakayama will teach a survey of the history of science in Japan since 1600 this fall, a senior seminar on Traditional Science in East Asia in winter quarter, and a graduate seminar on Science and Society in Contemporary Japan in spring quarter. At a May 11 colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center, he will speak on "Science and Technology Conflict Between U.S. and Japan in the Late 1980s."

In the early 1950s Nakayama was a student in mathematical astronomy at Tokyo University, at work on a thesis about a prewar quantum mechanical problem, when an American scientific journal brought news of a punch-card system that could perform the same analysis at 400 times the speed. This meant that his analytical method was obsolete. Encouraged by his professor to continue anyway, Nakayama disagreed. “I said to him that even though the analytical method is academically interesting, the mainstream shifted to a computational approach, and quitted the field.”

He says the postwar Japanese scientific world had not recovered from wartime isolation and deep economic devastation.

"I was more interested in the social background of scientific study and turned my subject to the history of science, which was largely Marxist," says Nakayama.

He left Japan and worked with renowned scholars Thomas Kuhn of Harvard University and Joseph Needham of Cambridge, completing his doctorate at Harvard. He started his teaching career in 1960 at Tokyo University, where he introduced the field of history of science. Upon retiring in 1989, he joined Kanagawa University where he established the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) Program.

Nakayama's latest project returns him to astrophysics and an old mathematical question.

"In order to understand Chinese astronomy in terms of modern Western [methodology], we have reduced Chinese computations into geometrical figures…but one particular concept could not be solved," says Nakayama. He refers here to the mathematical computations used by the Chinese to predict how the planets moved; Western theory is based on geometry while Chinese theory uses algebra. Nakayama spent forty years trying to reconcile the two.

"At this particular moment, I am putting the final touch on the problem," he says.

Nakayama was 17 when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the topic is still difficult for him to discuss. "So far, I have written about my experience and account of Hiroshima a couple of times in Japanese but in English I just gave a talk at Berkeley," Nakayama says. He is considering publication of the Berkeley lecture after much encouragement, but has made no commitments.

Published: Friday, October 03, 2008