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A Conversation with Prof. Yoshinobu Aoyagi 

Fusion of Different Fields or Specialties Stimulates New Ideas

Yoshinobu Aoyagi
Emeritus Prof. Tokyo Institute of Technology, Emeritus Prof. RIKEN Institute

Basic research is critical in developing the next generation of science and technology

 There is no doubt that basic research is the foundation of future science and technology, even in my field of specialty, applied physics.
 The fact that Japanese scientists have won several Nobel Prizes in recent years should be regarded as the fruit of basic research over the years. For example, the development of the blue LED, which won Dr. Isamu Akasaki the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2014, is based on the grassroots-style basic research conducted around 1979 on the metal organic chemical vapor deposition on the blue light-emitting material, gallium nitride (GaN).
 Even though GaN is durable and emits light well, this study presented several challenges, such as the unavailability of a suitable substrate on which to grow the crystals. Therefore, high-quality crystals could not be grown, and the n-type and p-type GaN necessary for diodes could not be created. In the meantime, zinc selenide (ZnSe) was studied as a promising material for a blue light-emitting compound in the 1990s, but it gradually became apparent that its life is too short for practical use. Under such circumstances, Dr. Akasaki persevered and continued his research until its fruition, hoping that developing a blue LED made of GaN with a long life expectancy “would trigger a lighting revolution not seen since the time of Thomas Edison.” This grassroots-style basic research is critically important as seed research that may produce great fruit in the future. Without a bud, new fruit will never grow. In curiosity-driven grassroots-style basic research, it is critical to pursue one’s strong scientific and technological interests. If you dig deeper, it is possible that an unexpected result will emerge, and a new field of study will be born. It is important in grassroots-style basic research to pause for a moment prior to starting to understand the vision clearly; “What kind of wonderful world will be uncovered if this research works, and what are its challenges?” One’s research may often reveal unexpected phenomena or results. After analyzing these phenomena and results, one will need the ability and deep insight to determine accurately whether they are worthless, or if you are on to something. A clear vision is necessary in order to do so.

The scientific and technological nation Japan should strive to be

 Japan has few natural resources and can only survive through science and technology. Some people say, “There are no more big and new things to work on in science and technology,” but this is not true. There are mountains of grand opportunities that Japan can excel in and should tackle in the fields of materials, electronics, informatics, energy, biological, medical, and chemical sciences. Nature does not come divided into fields. Now that these individual scientific fields have matured to a certain degree, it is only natural that the seeds of ambitious and new interdisciplinary research should sprout.

Not interesting if the research is not ambitious

Together with renowned researchers from around the world at the banquet of the international symposium in Ringberg, Germany.

 It is important that ambitious research themes be interesting. Now, what does “ambitious” mean? A few phrases come to mind, but when I submit or examine a new research proposal, I always ask, “What is new about this? What solution does it propose to what problem? How will the world change if this research goes well? What kind of wonderful world will it reveal?” I ask this to myself as well as to my students. The most important thing, I believe, is that the results of the research will contribute to humanity and society, and ultimately help someone locally or worldwide. Contribution to humanity and society does not only mean in terms of productivity per se, but also includes discovery of new laws of nature and recognition of phenomena, i.e., contribution to human wisdom. Several ambitious research projects will fail, but researchers must pursue results that could change the world with a stubborn will and flexible mind.
 It is also important to have a broad view and to discuss in depth with professionals from various fields in order to find an interesting topic of research. I have several “strategic” researcher friends in various disciplines around the world, and through discussion, I have learned the perspectives of professionals in different disciplines and their worlds.

Fusion of different fields or specialties to discover fascinating research topics

Dinner with Professor M. Stuke of Max Planck Institute, Germany.

 “Interdisciplinary” is a hot topic of conversation these days. People tend to imagine a completely different discipline from their own. However, if you rethink of it as fields other than your own (other disciplines), “interdisciplinary” research simply means joint research with professionals in other fields, which can dramatically expand the scope of your research, that is, “fusion of different fields or specialties”. The ideal would be to conduct a few interdisciplinary studies to evolve your topic. To do this, you need to do good work that is recognized globally (to make your partners think it would be advantageous to work with you), and to build close “strategic” relationships with as many professionals in other disciplines as possible. Become friends with several people who are doing good work, regardless of their workplace, domestically or internationally. If this produces good results, people will naturally come to you.
 The advantage of fusion of different fields or specialties is that it is easy to propose novel and interesting research topics. The Atom Switch device, an example of success at the International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (MANA), is a wonderful fruit of interdisciplinary collaboration among professionals in the basic research of STM and electronics. When you look for a new “fusion” research topic jointly with researchers in other disciplines, ambitious and interesting research will be born. When a young researcher joins a new lab, he/she can formulate a fascinating research topic for him/herself as well as for the lab if the varied expertise of the researcher and the lab can be fused. Learn the equipment, people, and research topics of the new lab, and then propose an interdisciplinary theme in collaboration with your own research.

Mindset of facing obstacles

 Fusion of different fields or specialties may be the weakness of Japanese researchers. Perhaps several of them are afraid of being different from others or of failure. Recently, an American graduate of Stanford University said, “Even if I fail and lose everything, I am confident I will get more than what I have now in my life in a completely different field.” Focusing on success rather than failure, what bold words these are! Interdisciplinary collaboration, that is, fusion of different fields or specialties, requires such strong confidence and a supportive environment. If success gives you recognition, you can challenge all you want, don’t you think?
 It is also essential to have someone who encourages you and gives you advice in finding yourself in a new field. There is a saying to “make use of whoever is useful, including your parents.” What matters is the result. I believe that the experienced professionals who have helped build this science-and-technology-orientated nation with their wisdom and technology can assume the role of the parents.


At the International Nanotechnology Conference in Pontresina, Switzerland.
Professor Yoshinobu Aoyagi (second from left) and the first MANA Director Professor Masakazu Aono (second from right).

Yoshinobu Aoyagi

Emeritus Prof. Tokyo Institute of Technology,
Emeritus Prof. RIKEN Institute,
Senior Researcher of Ritsumeikan Univ.

Ohkohchi Memorial Prize,
Ichimura Science Special Prize,
National Invention Award,
Jpn. Applied Physics Prize,
Prize of Agency of Science and Technology,
MNC Most Impressive Presentation Award,
Best paper award of Jpn J. Appl. Phys.,
Fellow of Jpn. Society of Appl. Phys.,
Micro and Nano Processes International Conference Award.