A Nobel Prize Winner and questions about Nagasaki

There was a very interesting profile in the New York Times Science section this week about Osamu Shimomura the Nobel Prize winning chemist.  Never heard of him?  Me either.  It was his life, not his science I found most interesting.  My mother’s family is from a small town near Hiroshima and I grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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.

Dr. Shimomura has said that he mostly doesn’t think about the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, but he recently delivered a lecture at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Los Alamos is the home of the Manhattan Project and the birthplace of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The bomb was not the topic of Dr. Shimonura’s lecture.

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.

Together with my father who returned briefly from Manchuria in 1939. Front row from left: my mother Yukie, grandmother Tsuki, grandfather Kosaburo, father Chikara, younger brother Sadamu, and myself behind Sadamu, together with my uncle Eijiro Sata's family in back row.

Together with my father who returned briefly from Manchuria in 1939. Front row from left: my mother Yukie, grandmother Tsuki, grandfather Kosaburo, father Chikara, younger brother Sadamu, and myself behind Sadamu, together with my uncle Eijiro Sata’s family in back row.

In his autobiography accompanying his Nobel information, Dr. Shimomura did talk about Nagasaki.

On August 6, 1945, news reports informed us that the city of Hiroshima had been completely destroyed by a new type of bomb; we didn’t know what kind. Three days later, shortly before 11 AM, a siren sounded at the Isahaya factory, notifying us of an air raid. As usual, rather than going into a bunker, I went to the top of a nearby hill with a couple of friends and looked at the sky. We saw a single B-29 going from north to south towards Nagasaki, about 15 km away. I thought that its course was unusual. The B-29 dropped two or three parachutes and I heard sporadic gunshots. Watching carefully, I saw no people attached to the parachutes. Within a few minutes, another B-29 followed the first one, and a siren sounded the “all clear” signal. We returned to our factory building.

At the moment I sat down on my work stool, a powerful flash of light came through the small windows. We were blinded for about 30 seconds. Then, about 40 seconds after the flash, a loud sound and sudden change of air pressure followed. We were sure there was a huge explosion somewhere, but we didn’t know where. The sky was rapidly filling with dark clouds, and when I left the factory to walk home, about three miles away, a drizzling rain started. It was black rain. By the time I arrived home, my white shirt had turned gray. My grandmother quickly readied a bath for me. That bath might have saved me from the ill effects of the strong radiation that presumably existed in the black rain.    The next morning, a technical officer told us that the parachutes we had seen the day before contained measurement instruments and a transmitter. He also mentioned that there was serious damage in Nagasaki, but the details were unknown. The chief of the factory organized a rescue party. We tried to enter Nagasaki, but could not because the roads and the railroad were impassable. Later that afternoon, the railroad was opened to Michinoo, near Nagasaki station, and rescuers began to transport injured people to Isahaya and other cities.

On August 15, in a radio broadcast, Emperor Hirohito declared unconditional surrender. This was the first time that most Japanese citizens had heard the emperor’s voice. I think there was a widespread feeling of relief, and also fear for an uncertain future.    Many years passed before we had detailed information about the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb was a different type and far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Even if the use of the Hiroshima bomb was justifiable in order to precipitate an end to the war, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later was clearly a test of new arms. It cannot be justified.

It cannot be justified.  I have always had questions about Nagasaki.  Why didn’t the Emperor call for surrender immediately?  Why didn’t we wait a few more days before dropping the second bomb?

The Times story recounts others at the Los Alamos dinner raising the subject.

At a dinner, Bette Korber, a theoretical biologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told of how her father had been on a troop ship preparing for the invasion of Japan. For years, she said, he had credited the decision to drop the bombs with sparing his life. Years later, however, when declassified documents reopened questions about whether the Nagasaki bomb had been necessary to end the war, he was in despair, she said.

Gary Doolen, a physicist who had been a weapon designer at the lab, said there was evidence that the second bomb had been dropped as a demonstration of American power to Russians, who were then massing troops in East Asia.

Dr. Shimomura, tall and stooped, mostly listened.

The next day he and his wife returned to the museum.

…Moments before the Nagasaki bombing, Dr. Shimomura had seen a B-29 bomber drop three parachutes. The drop had puzzled him. He would later learn that they carried instruments for data transmission and measurement.

He asked John E. Pearson, the Los Alamos physicist who had invited him to lecture, about the instruments. After some hunting they found models of the original parachute payloads.

“Some guy came up and started explaining what we were looking at,” said Dr. Pearson. “Osamu said, ‘Yes. I watched them falling.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite as stunned as that guy.”

I wonder what those instruments recorded.  I wonder if the information would be useful as we try to deal with other nuclear disasters.  I wonder if they were destroyed by the bomb.


Photograph of the family from Shimomura’s Nobel Autobiography

Photograph of Shimomura Josh Reynolds/Associated Press