In April 2012, a survey was conducted targeting students at Keio University relating to scientific terms, and the obtained results were compared with those from 2002 and 1992. Since most of the targeted students were in their first year and the surveys were conducted in April, the results reveal their knowledge level of scientific terms before their entering university. On the basis of the results, I would like to consider how Japanese society’s interest in science has changed.
First, when asked about the media through which students gained their current knowledge of science, they answered （multiple answers were allowed）, in descending order, television (67%), the internet (59%), newspapers (40%) and scientific journals. Comparing the survey results with those of 10 years ago, I noticed that the order of newspapers and the internet has reversed. Internet use has spread widely among high school students and they have come to have accessibility to information through smartphones as well as personal computers, which is believed to have led to such a change. The ratio of students who read books on science and the science sections of newspapers have lowered compared with 10 years ago. (http://user.keio.ac.jp/~mariko/press/12survey/index.html)
And also, concerning each of the 36 scientific terms, students were asked respectively “whether or not they have heard of it” and “whether or not they are interested in it.” Terms related to astronomy, biology and the environment were proved to be well-known, and among those, 10 terms such as the big bang, International Space Station, black holes, DNA, gene recombination, biological clocks, dioxin, meltdown, global warming and ozone holes were recognized by more than 90% of the students, and in addition to these 10 terms, the general theory of relativity, carbon nanotubes and artificial intelligence were included in well-known terms among students in the Faculty of Science and Technology.
This survey was conducted only at a specific university, and each figure might vary depending on at which university or college (a specific part of the college-age population) a survey is made. However, the overall trend is thought to reflect the atmosphere of the Japanese society as a whole, including students and their families.
Some changes in figures partly reflect society’s slow transition made over a long period of time, whereas others reflect short-term changes. Examples of what reflect short-term changes include “meltdown,” which was acknowledged by only 50% of students 20 years ago, however, the recent survey showed that it was known by all the targeted students, which was, needless to say, due to the terrible disaster at the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The circumstances of the accident including earthquakes and tidal waves were broadcasted everyday and the entire nation was completely riveted to the news.
A rapid change in the recognition rate was seen 20 years ago. Since “high temperature superconductivity” and “cold fusion” received much attention in the press as a social phenomenon in those days, they were recognized by 50% of students who were majoring in the humanities and by 80% of students majoring in science, however, the recognition rate decreased by half 10 years later and it has remained the same until now, 20 years later. Research on high temperature superconductivity has been advanced during the past 20 years, but nevertheless, as the research came to receive less attention in the press, the recognition rate of both terms dropped drastically.
What we need to take into account is the fact that respondents to surveys were in their first year at university, so students who are now 18 years old were 8 years old 10 years ago and they had not been born yet 20 years ago. Therefore, the “meltdown,” which proved to be recognized by most people presently, might fall into obscurity in 10 years unless it is not taken up in school education, or it might possibly take root in Japanese society as common knowledge. We need to be watchful.
The most remarkable thing found in this survey was that the number of terms that were selected by participants as an “interesting term” greatly increased compared with 10 years ago. Such a trend was more remarkable among students who were majoring in the humanities than those majoring in science. Terms in which a noticeably increased number of students expressed interest were related to astronomy and physics such as the big bang, cosmic expansion, dark energy, black holes, supernova, general theory of gravity, neutrino and carbon nanotube, and other terms included were related to biology and the environment such as genetic recombination, artificial intelligence and meltdown. In addition to those terms, terms such as International Space Station and global warming were found to be interesting among students majoring in the humanities. As mentioned above, this survey clearly showed that students came to be interested comprehensively in science in general, particularly space science, in a broad sense.
However, it would be wrong to actually conclude on the basis of the results that more people have come to have a scientific frame of mind because someone’s answering “I have heard of it” does not always mean that he or she really understands what it means exactly. That is clearly seen in the fact that some students who know “the big bang” or “cosmic expansion” did not know “Hubble's constant” or “white dwarf,” which they will never fail to come across if they study about “the big bang” or “cosmic expansion.”
Therefore, what the survey results mean is that now we are living in the time where science knowledge, particularly about cosmic science, has prevailed and a lot of people are taking an interest in science. For example, anyone knows the name “Napoleon,” and if you conduct a survey as to how widely his name is known, almost all Japanese will answer “I have heard of it.” Yet, only a few of them can explain how he got involved with the French Revolution or what he did exactly. Students’ coming to recognize more scientific terms should not be interpreted as their coming to study science more systematically at school or from books. Rather, it is because they are exposed to such terms more in their life than before.
Looking back on the past 10 years, there was a chain of events that familiarized people with science. In 2002, Koichi Tanaka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Nobel Prize winner Koichi Tanaka’s being an ordinary corporate employee made people feel that scientists are ordinary people. At the same time, Masatoshi Kobayashi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for detecting neutrinos from a supernova explosion, after which terms such as supernova or neutrinos came to appear frequently in the media. When Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa received the Nobel Prize in 2008, their unique characters were favorably referred to in the media rather than the complicated details of the detailed explanation of the theory of elementary particles, which also made people feel science is closer and more familiar to them.
Additionally, a number of Japanese astronauts’ going into space has had a significant impact. A comic book story about brothers who go into space is a big hit. When the asteroid probe “Hayabusa” returned to earth, a lot of people took a strong interest in it. Hayabusa’s return made an impression on them mostly without any direct relation to cosmic science; nevertheless, it played a considerable role in making space a part of people’s everyday lives.
An annular eclipse was observed in Japan, and a new word “soragirl (lit, space girl),” which means a woman likes star gazing, was invented. Astronomy and science are now more frequently taken up in TV programs and in popular weekly magazines than before, and astronomy-related terms appear in some magazines and comics intended for women, which used to have almost nothing to do with science. (20 years ago, “physics” or “science course” were synonymous with something unpopular in magazines for girls.)
Thus, scientific terms have been widely known, which, I believe, indicates that science has extensively spread and become established as a part of Japanese culture. Compared with 10 or 20 years ago, public interest in science has remarkably increased, and now it is the time for us to “enjoy science.” The term “enjoy” mentioned here involves not only satisfying your intellectual curiosity by seeing scientific achievements, but also enjoying science itself and things around it such as being fascinated by a story like “Hayabusa,” taking an interest in the daily lives of scientists, dressing up to observe the night sky, etc. In this way, science, in the broad sense of the word, has been favorably accepted, which is a visible sign that Japanese society has matured in terms of culture and also a remarkable change that has been seen during the past 10 years.
I entered the department of physics at university 40 years ago where people around me raised their voices in a chorus saying “even though you are a girl, you are taking physics.” I could not find any women researchers to become a role model for me and I found it difficult to achieve a good balance between my being a woman and a fondness for physics, which made my formative years very troublesome. In my case, the biggest challenge that I had to overcome in becoming a scientist was, actually, not studying, but my being a woman. So much has changed since then, and women are now starting to play active roles in various fields which were once the domain of men. The best example of those is probably an astronaut. If a little girl had said 40 years ago, “I want to be an astronaut in the future,” her mother would have said, “A woman cannot be an astronaut,” but in actuality there are female astronauts now, and being a mother and being an astronaut do not contradict each other.
Much has been said about the reasons why there are not many female students who major in science, and one of those reasons lies in a socially-accepted belief that women are unfit for science. However, such a belief is nothing but a biased view as evidenced by the fact that the ratio of female students in science courses is extremely low in Japan compared with other countries. In the University of Padua in Northern Italy, where I stayed in 2007, women made up 30 % of older ones in the fields of physics and astronomy, and women made up more than half of younger ones up to post doctoral fellows. (For further information on the ratio of woman professors and gender-related promotion disparity in Italy, please visit http://user.keio.ac.jp/~mariko/parity/parity.column.html)
Therefore, I am sure that more female students will take science courses in the future. At the Faculty of Science and Technology of my university, the ratio of female students out of 4,300 including from first-year students to seniors was 11.6% in the 1992 academic year, 14.9% in the 2002 academic year and 16.4% in the 2012 academic year. Thus, the ratio of female students has been increasing slowly. If the long-term changes that this survey pointed out indicate that an atmosphere where women can take science courses without hesitation or anxiety has been created in Japan, I am very happy. I cannot talk about people’s drifting away from science on the basis of this survey, but as least I feel that hurdles that female students have to overcome when going on to take science courses are lower than before. I want a lot of female students to taste the fun of studying science.
However, if students say: “I want to go on to graduate school and become an astronomer,” unfortunately, I must say regardless of their gender, “You better give up that idea.” Due to the unprecedented hiring slump, chances of their getting permanent positions are very low. If they have to renew a fixed-term employment contract every few years and move within the country or abroad, neither male of female students can make their life plans including marriage, child-raising, etc. and also it is difficult for them to carry out long-term responsible tasks. Research systems are expected to be reformed systematically.
Chinese / Japanese