2007 Balzan Prize for Nanoscience
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 23.11.2007
Mr. Federal Councillor,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my great honor to accept the Balzan Prize for Nanoscience. It is my understanding that this is the first time the Foundation has chosen the field of nanoscience for one of its annual awards in the sciences. I am extremely pleased to know that the Foundation has recognized the importance of my field. Receiving this internationally prestigious prize is a source of encouragement to myself, of course, but at the same time, it also serves to encourage those who have been working in this exciting area.
What is Nanoscience? It is a rather young area of science, only 20 or so years old. More specifically, nanoscience deals with materials of a size on the order of one ‘nano-meter’, which means one billionth of one meter. Nanoscience does not belong to one particular traditional academic subject, such as physics, chemistry, or electronics, but is quite interdisciplinary. In 1959 physicist Richard Feynman gave a historical lecture with the title “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” at a meeting of the American Physical Society. He awoke us from a traditional way of thinking of materials, and emphasized letting us see them in terms of individual atoms. For instance, he put forward a proposal to make a molecular machine by manipulating individual atoms one by one. Some theoretical physicists predicted that for such a nanometer-sized material, the physical, chemical and mechanical properties might be very different from those of conventional bulky materials. There were a great number of efforts to create such a nanometer-sized material, but without apparent success until 1991.
In that year carbon nanotubes were discovered, and it did not take long for physicists, chemists, material scientists and others to be fascinated by this new material. It is my great fortune to have been the one to discover it. This discovery has opened up an entirely new area of science, called nanoscience – now recognized by the Balzan Foundation – and the road leading to it is the story of my entire research career.
The carbon nanotube is made of carbon atoms alone. It is like a diamond, but has a tubular structure – something like wrapping chicken wire or hexagonal network into a seamless cylinder, but its size is substantially small, in a range of nano-meters. It cannot be seen with the naked eye, of course. In order to see the carbon nanotube, an electron microscope is needed, since without this instrument and the underlying knowledge needed to be able to use it, the nanotube would never have been discovered.
Again, in a sense, it is very fortunate for me that I have been well-trained in using this modern instrument and looking at just about anything in nanometer scale, which helped me to find carbon nanotubes. My career in electron microscopy started in graduate school at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, and after graduation, I moved in 1970 to Arizona State University, where I developed high-resolution electron microscopy with the late Professor John M. Cowley. Later, electron microscopy became a versatile technique in modern materials research. Therefore, I would like to thank him in particular, as I would also like to thank the many colleagues and friends I met during my 12- year stay at the Arizona State University, for sharing this important time for the development of microscopy.
I could never have received this Prize by myself, and I should emphasize the fact that many researchers all over the world have been concerned with carbon nanotubes as the subject of their research, and they have worked hard in order to understand this new material in many ways. As a result, carbon nanotubes have become popular not only in academia. but also in industrial applications of materials.
Moreover, I would like to thank the Balzan Foundation in another way – that is, I am the first from Japan to receive this honorable prize. Once again this confirms the Foundation’s truly international view of humanity as well as its cultural motivation. My winning the Balzan Prize will make it possible to encourage young researchers in Asian countries as well, and also I thank the Foundation for its commitment to young scientists so that they can explore their own research programs, which involves young people in the hopes of understanding nanoscience and utilizing it for our society.
Lastly I thank my wife, Nobuko, and my family. Without their support I would never have been able to accept this wonderful gift.