The day of Halloween of the last year of the last century, on the eve of All Saints-day and the end of the Celtic year, when the worlds of darkness and light intersect one another, I reached the Far East going against the historical Eurocentric perspective, i.e. I moved beyond the American Far West.
In the airport of Nagoya, two of my new colleagues were waiting holding a paper with my name. From the car they gave me a ride to a hotel, I couldn’t see neither the houses with doors and windows made of rice paper, nor the women dressed in the traditional kimono, with which my imagination had populated the Japanese islands during the months previous to my arrival. Beyond my own reflection on the glass wet by the rain and darkened by the evening, all I could envision were buildings with neon lights flickering on sad silhouettes wearing uniformed suits and umbrellas. In the distance loomed a castle, and I was told by my companions that it was a replica made of concrete of the original one, swept away by American bombs during the World War II.
The first day of my Japanese adventure consisted in making contact with the bureaucracy, heavy as a sumo wrestler. Thanks to the invaluable help of a student, who’d became a friend, I managed to rent an apartment and to buy the least stuff necessary to survive. The first jump from the old Europe to the new America was like a skirt-tucked somersault on a summer creek, compared with the second jump from the new America to the unknown Asia: a triple somersault without safety net.
The professor of the department was the prototype of a good Japanese worker, that is, someone who returns home just enough to sleep and take a shower, and knows from references that there is something called weekends, and has heard about a myth saying that in a far land people can take vacations for a whole month. The fact that I came from Berkeley and with good recommendations paved tremendously my working situation. From the beginning, I did not join the wheel of endless hours at the laboratory with no weekends, in which, unfortunately, everyone: students, faculty and foreign researchers in Japan, turn around, unable to escape. But I wouldn’t be able to keep my privileged situation if I were not productive, which in the world of science is measured by the number of articles and the prestige of the journals in which they are published.
In Japan, I researched materials with structural designs at the nanometer scale, that is the millionth part of a millimeter, almost nothing. Several months had passed since my arrival, and the experiment in which I was engaged was not going as I expected, a fact that was beginning to undermine my confidence and status. One day, after a period of meditation in the morning, I asked with no other recipient that the universe, a sign that could guide me. I entered the building decided not to leave it with empty hands. I carefully designed an experiment and entered the lab with a solemn and determined stance. According to my plan, I proceeded with extreme precision until its total consummation. It was already in the evening when I introduced a sample with the result of my hard-working day on a machine of X-ray diffractions. Its verdict would decree, not only the success or not of the experiment itself, but my worth and status as a researcher in Japan. According to some papers published by some other groups working on the same field, I should expect to see on the monitor a peak when the incident angle of the X-ray beam hit the sample about 2 degrees, or less. I pressed the button that opens the door that releases the radiation, and walked away quickly to the monitor, to contemplate in awe the evolution of the measurement. The horizontal axis of the plot indicated the incident angle and the vertical one the signal intensity. The plotted line began flat-dead, without recording any signal. The angle kept on growing slowly: 1.5, 1.6, 1.7… anxiety overtook me and started yelling, “Come on, come on!”
My friend, the Japanese student, came by, surprised and curious. “What’s going on?,” he asked. I didn´t answer. My attention was totally focused on the monitor. The degrees kept on growing: 1.8, 1.9, 2.0, 2.1…
“Total disaster!,” I exclaimed. I reclined on the chair with my hands clasped behind my head and staring at the ceiling. After a while, I began to explain to my friend the details of the failed experiment. Then, I slide the pointer over the button that would abort the measurement. And then, just as I was about to click on it, a beep sounded on the computer, as when a flat encephalogram records a sign of life. “Impossible,” I thought, “We are well over 3 degrees.” However, the intensity of the signal kept on raising, and with it the volume of my expressions of joy, to the astonishment of my friend.
Thanks to his question, I had allowed the measurement to be extended far beyond the reasonable and, instead of cancelling it as I had done many times before, this time I managed to detect the signal that, already from the first experiment, was there, only that not where it was supposed. My problem was not a lack of result; the real problem was that I was looking for it in the expected place.
That extraordinary result of that single day of work would allow me to publish a lot and well during the three years that I would be doing research at Nagoya University. Of all my years spent as a scientist, this may be the one I keep the best memory. The morning of that day I had asked to the universe for a sign, but I never imagined the response would occur in such a literal way: a signal on a monitor screen.
The dawn that, from atop of a mountain in the Japanese Alps –the backbone of the country with a surprising European name– I could admire Mount Fuji protruding majestically above a sea of clouds and below a rain of green shooting stars, I remembered the peak that a few years earlier I had seen on a screen, because of which I could now enjoy the view of another one, only that much bigger and interesting.