chapter  12
18 Pages

The question of research in prewar Japanese physics


A primary challenge that James Bartholomew addressed in The Formation of Science in Japan: Building a Research Tradition was the establishment of a tradition of scientific research in Japan, an issue that this chapter revisits by examining some of the problems that confronted noted prewar physicists in their efforts to integrate their research activities within the international scientific community and subsequently to develop their own tradition of physics research.1 Here the word research means methodical and institutional activities conducted to produce new knowledge, not learning established knowledge from others. Shaped by various characteristics of the time and debated among its historical actors, what actually constitutes research is contingent and contentious. Nonetheless, physicists’ research efforts can be examined from an historical perspective. Physics research in Japan was not necessarily part of empire building. Since

research is an activity to produce knowledge, its relevance to empire building was not inherent, even if it was contingent on that process. As many Japanese in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, physicists in Japan did not necessarily have all aspects of their work immersed in empire building. As was the case with other imperial powers, however, imperialism and colonialism shaped the social contexts in which research activities took place. The question might be how the context of empire building affected physics research in Japan and vice versa. Sociologists and historians have discussed the relation between science and

its social contexts for half a century.2 The ways by which scientific research affected society constitutes a prevalent theme in popular accounts of the history of science.3 Various attempts have been made since Robert K. Merton’s and Paul Forman’s seminal work to show how social contexts shaped scientific contents and research activities.4 For example, there is a renewed attempt to explain scientific content through social context during the Cold War.5 It is, however, problematic to separate scientific content and social context, and to attempt to explain the former by the latter, because such dichotomous reductionism is groundless. This applies to science and empire building, too.