Interview with Koichi Tanaka by Joanna Rose, science writer, 12 December 2002.
Mr. Tanaka talks about how the Nobel Prize has changed his life; his present work (1:52); his discovery (4:11); advantages of working in a company (7:56); and how he has learnt to cope with all the attention (11:44).
Welcome to the Nobel e-Museum and to this interview, Koichi Tanaka, and my congratulations for the prize.
Koichi Tanaka: Thank you very much.
Can you already tell us how the prize has changed your life? What are the advantages of the prize?
Koichi Tanaka: Yes. My life is completely changed and so, as you may know, I am unfortunately too popular in Japan, so I’m actually chased by many press people, even in Sweden – so, completely changed. I actually want to go back to my normal life, it means previous life, before I received the prize, but maybe it is very good for me, because I’m in a kind of research job, so if I want to do some latest research job, I have to contact as many people as possible. Now, my name is very popular in Japan, even in foreign countries so, if I want to know something I didn’t know, I can contact such people and I can communicate each other. That will be very good in near future, but at this moment too busy so I have no time to do such job.
What is your main interest now or in the nearest future, at work?
Koichi Tanaka: My present job is trying to understand the structure of protein but in a near future, that kind of research will be ended so all the information will be reviewed. Protein information will be reviewed maybe within several years or five years later. After that, the next target will be probably sugar, we call it polymer saccharide, because we’re constructed by protein, sugar, fat and of course water and if after we know the protein information, the next target will be other compounds like sugar and lipid, fat. My next target is to try to review what kind of compound we are made of, so sugar and lipid. That’s my next target.
So you are heading for the next invention and next Nobel Prize maybe?
Koichi Tanaka: Because I’m trying to develop some kind of instrument that will be very useful for such research, but at this moment we developed an instrument but that is just a tool, so we have to develop some other technique which will make the best use of such a tool so I am actually trying to contact … even before receiving this prize, I aspired to contact such people, so now it’s probably very easy for me to contact such people.
What is your experience of working with such revolutionary invention, I would say?
Koichi Tanaka: In 1980s, you’re talking about 1980s, our group consisting of five people, including me, are trying to develop all the system, so that is called mass spectrometer, so try to know the size or weight more accurate, and I was trying to develop the … how to say, ionisation, so try to make such compound which charge, so after that such kind of compound will be separated by something and detected and measured, so I try to make such compound ionisation, so at that time, for example protein, was thought it was impossible to ionise such big size more accurate but fortunately I was not a specialist.
It was an advantage you mean?
Koichi Tanaka: Yes, yes, I think almost all people would think, if I have no common sense or common knowledge in such field, so that is completely disadvantage, but if someone wants to develop some completely new thing, if we are trying to deduce something from such common knowledge, that we will be just trying to develop some step but we have to jump up, so sometime, such kind of common knowledge will be an obstacle, because at that time, most of the chemists thought that it is completely impossible to ionise such big molecule like protein but at that time, at least, I was not a specialist so I can do anything.
Your ignorance helped you, you mean?
Koichi Tanaka: Yes, I ignored almost everything.
Koichi Tanaka: But so many mistakes I made because I had no common sense but even so, just by chance or 1 out of 1,000, I can make some kind of big discovery I can make, so that was the invention which was to a Nobel Prize.
So, never trust your common sense is the lesson?
Koichi Tanaka: Ah, for everyday life we have to obey that but for a new discovery, this is a kind of my motto, so do not try to rely on too much on the common knowledge, common sense.
You’re working at the company actually, at Shimadzu, not the academic institution. What do you think is the difference to work for a company?
Koichi Tanaka: So yes, so normally the researcher in company has some limitation because such people are forced to develop something that will be useful just for next year, so just very short-term development. In such case, we have to do something easy to do within a short time. On the other hand, researchers, for example in government institute or university can concentrate, and do such research maybe three years or five years, but in my case, at that time, in 1980s, I can do such similar job like university and the money was not a problem, not limitless, but we can spend some big money at that time.
Time was not problem either?
Koichi Tanaka: No, no problem, so that is the one biggest merit for me to discover such a new thing and one merit for the company. If the company thought that is not useful for developing new machine which will be sought in near future, such kind of activity will be halted and sometime it will be completely forgotten, but fortunately, my boss thought this is a very new technique and will be useful in the near future. His opinion was like that, so we are lucky to continue that development, but most of the projects in the companies will be controlled by such decisions so there are so many lucky and me, so at first money was not a problem and we can do some long term development and we can launch such a machine. So many things help me to show such results or discovery to, at first Japan and finally, such kind of information was transferred to Europe and America by several people, so I have to say thank you to so many people here.
Yes, and now you’re here.
Koichi Tanaka: Yes.
My final question then. As a shy person, how did you get accustomed to being interviewed in public over time?
Koichi Tanaka: Probably up to university student, I was a completely shy guy and if I, for example, even in Japan, I had to give some talk in front of, for example 100 people, I would be completely upset and I couldn’t say anything, just ahh. But fortunately, my colleague at that time tried to teach me how to cope with such stress, so at first just try to say something in front of the colleagues and I did and so next step is to say something in front of my employees in my company, so next step is try to give a talk to the people in the conference. So, step by step I learn how to do in front of bigger and bigger number of people, so now I’m here.
Yes, you managed.
Koichi Tanaka: So that is another lucky for me, yes.
Thank you very much for this interview and thank you for sharing your time.
Koichi Tanaka: Thank you very much.
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