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History of the School of Science

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In 2017, the School of Science at the University of Tokyo celebrated its 140th anniversary. In commemoration, we look back over its history.

Science in Japan and its Origins

The School of Science was founded alongside the University of Tokyo in 1877, but its origins can be traced back to the 17th century. In 1684, the Tokugawa government formed the Astronomy Agency (Tenmonkata) to compile calendars. The technology used for astronomical observation, as well as the Agency’s accumulated knowledge, were inherited by what would later become the School of Science. That same year, the Tokugawa government also established the Koishikawa Medicinal Herb Garden (presently known as Koishikawa Botanical Garden), which became part of the School of Science in 1877. In 1860, the Seirenkata (Department of Refining), which was the predecessor of the Department of Chemistry, was formed by the Tokugawa government as part of the Bansho Shirabesho (Institute for the Study of Barbarian Books).

The School of Science consisted of five departments when it was first established: Mathematical Physics and Astrology, Geology and Mining, Chemistry, Biology, and Engineering. The Department of Mathematical Physics and Astrology separated into what are now the Departments of Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy. The Department of Geology and Mining would later become the Department of Earth Science, and eventually the current Department of Earth and Planetary Environmental Science. (The Department of Engineering would later separate from the School of Science and become the predecessor of the School of Engineering.) Faculty at the time included Dr. Kenjiro Yamakawa (1854-1931), who is known as “the founder of Japanese physics,” and Dr. Joji Sakurai (1858-1939), who is referred to as the “father of modern chemistry in Japan.” Among Dr. Yamakawa’s students was Dr. Hantaro Nagaoka (1865-1950), who created the “Saturnian model of the atom” in 1903. In addition, one of Dr. Sakurai’s students was Dr. Kikunae Ikeda (1864-1936), who in 1907 discovered Umami.

The School of Science in a Global Context

The School of Science has pioneered new fields of study in various eras. The Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 led to the establishment of the Department of Seismology that same year. The department was renamed to the Department of Geophysics in 1941, and then became the present Department of Earth and Planetary Physics. In the 1940s, the field of molecular biology underwent rapid advances, particularly in the United States. In response, the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry was established in 1958, which was the first university department in Japan to specialize in molecular biology. In 1975, around when computers started to become more prevalent in society, the Department of Information Science was established with the aim to both teach and conduct research in the field of Information Science. Developments in information science significantly transformed approaches to science, especially in life science. This resulted in the formation of a bioinformatics research program in 2001 that focused on examining life as information. The program was then expanded to become the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology in 2007.

Over the past 140 years, many students have graduated from the School of Science, and among these graduates are recipients of globally prestigious awards. The first alum to enjoy international success was Dr. Kunihiko Kodaira (1915-1997), who in 1954 became the first Japanese person to be awarded a Fields Medal for his achievements in the theory of complex manifolds. In 1973, Dr. Leo Esaki became the first alum to win the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of tunneling phenomena in semiconductors. Three other graduates have gone on to make significant achievements in the field of elementary particle physics and win a Nobel Prize in Physics: Dr. Masatoshi Koshiba in 2002 for the detection of cosmic neutrinos, Dr. Yoichiro Nambu (1921- 2015) in 2008 for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics, and Professor Takaaki Kajita in 2015 for the discovery of neutrino oscillations. In 2016, another graduate from the School of Science, Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.

Throughout its history, the School of Science has played an integral role in the global field.

Text: Masatsugu Kayahara
Illustration: Yo Hosoyamada

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