For Witness to Nagasaki, a Life Focused on Science

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Sixty-eight years ago, Osamu Shimomura was a 16-year-old high school student working in a factory seven and a half miles from Nagasaki, Japan. Sitting down to work, a light flashed, briefly blinding him, and the pressure wave from an explosion came rolling through.


On his walk home from the factory, he was drenched with a black rain. His grandmother immediately had him bathe, most likely saving him from radiation-related illness.

His future wife, Akemi, was not as lucky. She was just over a mile from the blast and, though sheltered by a small hill, suffered for years from the effects of radiation poisoning.

In the aftermath of World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dr. Shimomura, now a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, said he largely put the events out of his mind.

But here he was last month, in the birthplace of the atomic era, to deliver a lecture at the monthly Director’s Symposium. Nearby was a museum with Manhattan Project artifacts, and surrounding him were Los Alamos scientists who were curious about how this man, now 84 and a professor emeritus at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., felt about the bombings in 1945.

That is not, though, what he chose to address in his talk to about 100 Los Alamos scientists and lab workers.

Instead, he recounted the discovery and development of one of the most significant tools for modern biotechnology: the green fluorescent protein, or G.F.P., used widely in cell and molecular biology as a visual tracer. The discovery, which has deepened the understanding of a wide range of fundamental biological processes, brought him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008, along with Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien.

Written By: John Markoff
continue to source article at nytimes.com

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  1. This is a difficult one. i was six when the bombs were dropped. The propaganda, as I later found out, is that the bombs were dropped to let Japan know that we had mere than one. Whether or not that was true is unknown at this point. Whatever the strategy was by the US, it was immoral, just as the whole episode of WWII. When war ends, maybe and just maybe, we might advance our species. But then again, maybe evolution by natural selection will keep us from advancing.

      • In reply to #2 by mmurray:

        In reply to #1 by Urichard:

        Whatever the strategy was by the US, it was immoral, just as the whole episode of WWII.

        Trying to stop Hitler was immoral ?

        Michael

        bit kneejerk there! not only did hitler live somewhat to the north-west of the target for the atomic bombs, he was quite well “stopped” at the time of the attacks

        my understanding is the attacks were more of a message to Stalin then Hirohito, who was already trying to negotiate surrender to the allies

        • In reply to #7 by SaganTheCat:

          In reply to #2 by mmurray:

          In reply to #1 by Urichard:

          Whatever the strategy was by the US, it was immoral, just as the whole episode of WWII.

          Trying to stop Hitler was immoral ?

          Michael

          bit kneejerk there! not only did hitler live somewhat to the north-west of the target for the atomic bombs,…

          What kneejerk ? Urichard said that the whole episode of WWII was immoral. Hitler was part of WWII.

          Michael

  2. When Albert Einstein signed a letter to President Roosevelt urging the US to pursue nuclear weapons, it was on the basis that Hitler’s scientists were also working towards that end, and the thought of an unanswered Nazi nuke was truly terrifying. Looking at it purely from the perspective of Einstein’s participation, as is my wont, it would seem that using the bomb on Japan was not justified by that original argument.

    Having defeated Germany before the Nazis could develop a nuclear weapon, the US had the option to immediately shut the whole project down. A truly wise leadership would have instituted a nuclear non-proliferation regime with all the enthusiasm given to all the other post-war rebuilding projects: dismantle the Manhattan project, promise there’ll be no bomb from America OR Russia. Promise NEVER to make one and police other nations to stop them from doing it.

    That didn’t happen, and America dropped the first, then the second bomb on Japan, the only nuclear weapons ever used in combat.

    The whole terrifying nightmare of the cold war that followed was part of the cost we paid. Although the cold war has thawed a bit, the story of the development and use of the bomb is not finished yet. The chapter that hasn’t been written is the chapter about the THIRD nuclear bomb to be used. Will it be from Inida, or North Korea, or Iran? Will it be from a rogue element of the Pakistani military, a Jihad version of “Dr Strangelove”? After that nightmare is played out, we can revisit the question of whether using the bomb on Japan was worth it. Because in deciding to press ahead with the first and second bombs, they were also setting in train a process leading to the third.

    • *In reply to #3 by stylofone:

      The fact that atomic bombs have been used in war is quite unfortunate. Had they not, there would be a much bigger psychological barrier to using them. Over and over I have heard American politicians and military people wanting to use them for relatively low priority purposes, where the USA is in no danger whatsoever. They want to use them as efficient weapons, in aggressive wars, against relatively weak opponents who could not retaliate with nukes.

      • The fact that a few people in power over years have advocated the use of nuclear weapons does not alter the fact that none have been used now for 68 years. The claim that Hiroshima and Nagasaki make the use of nuclear weapons more likely in 2013 doesn’t bear scrutiny.

        In reply to #15 by Roedy:

        *In reply to #3 by stylofone:

        The fact that atomic bombs have been used in war is quite unfortunate. Had they not, there would be a much bigger psychological barrier to using them. Over and over I have heard American politicians and military people wanting to use them for relatively low priority…

  3. I’m afraid I can’t remember the source of this information, but as I recall it despite deeply rooted ancient cultural practices which forbade surrender, the Japanese, having known for a long time that they were going to lose the war, were prepared to sue for peace, and the American Government knew it. Ergo, it has been argued that the dropping of the bombs was an act of political vengeance.

    One part of the subsequent propaganda stream held that it saved many lives in neighbouring Asian nations.

    But, as always, on this as with all matters, I stand to learn from being corrected.

    • In reply to #4 by Stafford Gordon:

      I’m afraid I can’t remember the source of this information, but as I recall it despite deeply rooted ancient cultural practices which forbade surrender, the Japanese, having known for a long time that they were going to lose the war, were prepared to sue for peace, and the American Government knew…

      There are numerous instances throughout Japanese history of various feudal factions surrendering to a superior enemy. They didn’t expect good treatment however and gave in mostly though not necessarily after a hard fight. I think the idea of Japanese not surrendering is largely mythical but there is something about the USA worrying about the calibre of the resistance and how many lives it would cost. There is also the view that this is a hindsight justification. The recent battles at Iwo Jima and Kohima and even losses at the allied pyrrhic victory at Monte Cassino may have been crucial in the judgements leading to the decision because the resistance was so fierce and the costs high. There was also the belief that strategic bombing was a war winning game. I don’t think we’ll know the real reasons. R Wholstetter 1962 characterised the outputs of the expert congressional investigatory committee on Pearl Harbour as 39 volumes of hindsight bias.

      • I have read extensively on the Pacific War, and my understanding was that the U.S. had seen first hand how fanatical the Japanese were, both military and civilians. The losses incurred during the invasion of the various islands on the way to Japan shocked the U.S. The Japanese military regarded surrender as unthinkable, thus their treatment of allied POWs. Remember the terrible examples of civilian mothers filmed jumping off cliffs with their infants, to avoid capture/surrender to American forces ? Word had come out of Japan of civilians of all ages being trained with sharpened sticks to repel the American invasion of the homeland islands, which they knew was coming. The casualty count of both attackers and defenders was anticipated to be in the millions. Dropping the atomic bombs was assumed to be the lesser evil, and would save many lives on both sides.

        • In reply to #6 by rod-the-farmer:

          Word had come out of Japan of civilians of all ages being trained with sharpened sticks to repel the American invasion of the homeland islands,

          Would you expect anything less if the US mainland were invaded, perhaps in retaliation to one of the aggressive resource wars?

          There is a distinction between Japanese soldiers, Japanese civilians and the leaders in their attitude to surrender. The leaders did not suffer personally to the same extent as the other two. They also had most to lose from a surrender in terms of how they would be treated.

          Truman would have used a calculus where Japanese lives were worthless compared with the lives of allies. There would be no reason to spare Japanese lives if there were even a minute increase in risk to non-Japanese ones. I would go further, he would see extermination of Japanese lives, including babies to be a positive thing. With those assumptions, the way he used the bombs to ensure maximum casualties and least chance of intercept by attacking minimally guarded targets makes sense.

          His strategy worked. It is not the first time the USA has pulled off a brutal, successful, self-serving act.

  4. We forget how much everyone hated the “Japs” in WW II. I recall Bugs Bunny and other cartoons from the war were shown in the 50s with racist stereotype Japanese villains. Everyone was bombing civilians without conscience. There was all kinds of TV using film from the war or reenacted stories of the war. As I was growing up, Japan was still held in contempt.

    A measured response might be to blow up an uninhabited offshore island, but those were not measured times.

    Some say the blasts were more for the benefit of the USSR to show them the USA was big, mean, pitiless and not to be messed with. Hiroshima was purposely chosen because it has no military significance. It was pure malice. The USA wanted to show how ruthless it was, and perhaps to suggest it had hundreds more weapons, by “wasting” one on a purely civilian target. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the centres of Christianity in Japan. Targeting them suggested there were no limits to the horrible things the USA was prepared to do.

    My Mom always claimed the Japanese were trying to negotiate a surrender. The USA bombed them because they would not soon get another chance to use such weapons. It was sort of like baking an elaborate cake and then not eating it. It was runaway geek (reminiscent of that twit, Cody Wilson who posted the plans for a cheap, non-traceable, smuggleable, printable handgun just because he could do it.)

    In war, people rarely act in their own best interest, much less the global best interest. Leaders are even more tempted by the desire for revenge than regular people because they have the means for massive retaliation.

    Harry Truman would have been hanged as a war criminal had the USA not won the war. War criminals are only prosecuted from the losing side.

  5. My “Reply” button has stopped working again, but this is in reply to Vorlund #5:

    One of the reasons that allied prisoners of war were so apallingly treated by the Japanese was that their captors considered them beneath contempt for having surrendered instead of fighting to the death or killing themselves.

    Nothing mythical about it I’m afraid.

    • In reply to #10 by Stafford Gordon:

      My “Reply” button has stopped working again, but this is in reply to Vorlund #5:

      The reply button does not appear until you have logged on. The RDF site is quite reliant on JavaScript. Make sure your JavaScript support is enabled. I have found I sometimes need to switch to Firefox to get around strange behaviour. I think part of the problem comes when the site is overloaded. That causes the JavaScript to fail.

  6. Indeed aquliacane. I would vouchsafe that there are a multitude of research groups in universities all over the world that simply would not be, if it were not for this protein and what it enabled them to investigate.

  7. I use the Green Fluorescent Protein gene (located on a plasmid called Pglo) to transform E. coli in an advanced high school class!!! We will be performing the experiment next week. This technology is ubiquitous and accessible. My students will have the intellectual challenge of understanding transformation, plasmids, operons, ampicillin resistance, evolution, binary fission, colony counting, transcription, translation, uv radiation…. etc….

    we then use a protein purification procedure to isolate the source of the glowing! All of thisin one week of high school classes. Thank you Dr. Shimomura, you have brought light (no pun intended) into the world of millions of people; not to mention millions of stimulated brains across the globe. HERO.

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