To you who’ll be living on this planet in the next century

I’ve always had a dream since I had started aspiring to be a scientist.

I had almost forgotten about it as I had hectic, competitive, but fulfilling years as a researcher. That dream suddenly struck my mind again, when I could finally afford to regard myself as a scientist in the making.

The spring of 2014. I was staying on Kikaijima Island, the mecca for researches on coral reefs. Before landing on this island, I’d been so afraid of her. For I’d thought I was too immature and heretic for her holiness at that time – the time when I had nothing but a piece of luggage, one-way flight ticket, and a thread of confidence and courage barely enough to take the first step on the island.

Surprisingly, everything began to feel just right the moment I had landed on the island. The balmy air I breathed in, the brightly colored coral reefs I saw, the warm hospitality I received from the locals – they all worked together to dissipate my paranoia. For a brief moment, I was peaceful and free from the uneasiness. It was that moment that I decided to found a research institution here.

At the beginning of this year, I was moved by what Dr. Atsuko Yamazaki said to me. She had started to inhabit this island and was visiting my office at Hokkaido University when I asked her what we can do for our ideology. With an unwavering conviction, she replied to me:

To know the past, to keep the records of the present, and to preserve our achievements for the future generations.

I was nearly driven into tears by how much my old student had matured. At the same time, I was forced to realize that I hadn’t had any specific plan to achieve our ideology.

To you who are reading my message right now, I ask you:

What’s your dream?

As for me, it is to talk with the people 100 years later. It is to communicate my thoughts to them. I haven’t figured out how, nor have I decided what to talk about.

When you share your dream with other people, some might possibly laugh or frown at you, pointing out that it would be impossible or meaningless to realize such an absurd dream. You shouldn’t be petrified. For it might be an indication that your dream is a great, romantic one. For it might be a herald that you might achieve something that no one else have ever attained.

I’m a weirdo. A weirdo could be a pioneer. A pioneer could be the only man standing up for his own dream. One man is just enough to establish an institution. The second one can join him to make up a team. As soon as the team expands to ten people, it won’t be long before it becomes a party of 100 people.

Fortunately, I’m now blessed with my teammates who share my dream. I’m blessed with students and friends who adore me and overlook my ungraceful drinking habits. I’m blessed with my support who don’t even exactly know I’m going to do. With so many friends around me, I’m confident that my dream will come true.

If anyone 100 years later receives our message, I hope that he’ll come to dream of talking with people in the next hundred years later. That’s what I thought on my flight back from my eighth stay in Kikaijima. This year, the cherry in Sapporo had started to bloom two weeks earlier than usual. Perhaps, a warm wind might have blown all the way from Kikaijima.

To scientists in the making in 100 years later (Part I)

What does it take to be a scientist?

Personally, I think it is – and probably will be in 100 years later – to become the first one in the world to discover “something.” Our desire for knowledge – no matter how impractical it might seem to our daily lives – is one of few virtues that we human possess. Indeed, intellectual discovery will bring us great pleasure that can’t be derived from other means. Science driven by pure intellectual curiosity sometimes binds people across borders, races, religions – and even generations. And people sharing a common intellectual objective are capable of building an equal, close relationship.

It might not be very easy to get others to understand your passion. It’s because your discovery is usually disproportionately tiny compared to the amount of effort, luck, knowledge, instinct, and money you have to invest in exchange. For attaining that tiny discovery, you might have to dedicate your whole life to attaining that tiny discovery. Or you might have to give up the other dreams that you had as a child. And sadly, your “discovery” might already have been discovered by somebody else. Or it might not be a matter of any significance or interest to the others.

Nevertheless, I want you to never give up – never give up endeavoring to discover that “something” and to communicate them to the rest of the world. For your discovery – no matter how tiny it is – will sure be higher than any mountains. The sight you will see from the top of that mountain is the kind you won’t be able to enjoy by merely being pedantic. Only then will you be able to see the next mountains to conquer. Just like placing a dot after another on a map, you will conquer those mountains one by one. Those tiny dots can be accumulated, eventually to form a huge lump, which will become useful for understanding the phenomena and matters surrounding us. It will enlighten us in which direction we should be headed in the future.

I myself haven’t made many discoveries yet. But I won’t likely be able to cease being a scientist. For I’m too excited by my own feeling of anticipation – the anticipation that I will someday discover “something” in the future. If, in hundred years later, I could find a scientist in the making just like myself, I’d feel greatly happy. If, on the other hand, I should see that flame of intellectual curiosity threatened to be extinguished, I’d try anything to protect it at any cost.

To you who are reading my message right now, I ask e you:

What do you want to discover?

As you go on a journey of your intellectual quest, you might bump into a deadlock. You might not succeed in discovering what you want to find out. Or you might lose confident as you fail over and over. If you feel that you have no way out, come visit us in this island. Someone like you, someone passionate enough to understand the pleasure of pursuing intellectual quest just like you, will be here waiting for you. You might not necessarily discover what you want to find out here. But you will be able to share the pleasure and pain you derive from endeavoring to discover “something.”

In the next letter, I’d like to share with you why I’m attracted to coral reefs and what I want to know about them.

To scientists in the making in 100 years later (Part II)

My first encounter with the beauty of coral reefs happened in my childhood imagination. A school kid at that time, I applied to a field trip project organized for kids, a grandiose voyage from Fukuoka – the prefecture where I lived then – to Okinawa. As a child, I was a weird but rebellious brat, boasting his own discoveries from the neighboring archeological sites and 1dragging his younger brother into his own expedition to the ancient tombs.

As I attended the briefing sessions, I got completely absorbed into this project. During one of those sessions, a piece of safety instruction caught my attention: always swim the sea water with your shoes on.

Prior to this field trip project, I’d swum in so many seas: the murky water of a port in Yokohama; the endless sand beach stretched along Kujukurihama; and Shikanoshima after I moved to Fukuoka. I’d never been required to wear shoes for swimming in these seas. Would I be able, in the first place, to swim with my shoes on? What would I do with the wet shoes after swimming? There were so many things I wasn’t sure of.

It was because, they told me, there were a lot of coral reefs in the seas of Okinawa. Some were spikey, and others were thorny. With such dangerous animals around, I’d certainly get hurt without my shoes on in the water. As soon as they had explained this to me, I got obsessed with these unfamiliar animals called “corals.” What are they?” “Do Okinawan always swim in such a dangerous environment?” As I processed the information piece by piece in my mind, I began to imagine a beautiful lagoon with plentiful coral colonies of diverse colors and tiny creatures inhabiting there.

I’d been so excited by my own imagination that it was very unfortunate that the destination was suddenly changed to Noto Peninsula in Kanazawa Prefecture just before the departure. A typhoon had struck Okinawa! I couldn’t contain my disappointment and anger that I cried and stamped my feet in frustration. I remember having been reluctantly trudging on Noto’s sand beach wearing that pair of sandals that I’d been going to use in Okinawa. After being transferred to a new school, my yearning for the yet-to-be seen coral reefs has waned in the days of being immersed in sports.

Sometimes I suspect that I’ve never seen a scenery more beautiful than that coral reef I had imagined in my childhood mind. Perhaps it might be because I’ve seen coral reefs so many times that I got numb at their beauty. But I sometimes think that it is that childhood experience that makes me shake off the attempts made by the people around to stop me and go on researching over and over. I wouldn’t dare to mutter, “I guess I just might quit because I’m tired,” for I’m afraid I’d be given a head-butt* by myself from my childhood.

*My best shot in fistfights in my childhood. I used this technique in every fight with the bullies so as not to be picked on from the next day.

For this summer, we are planning Coral Reef Scientific Camp for kids. How many future scientists in the making would I be able to see? How many of you would remind me of my childhood? I’m looking forward to see you all.

In response to the message from Parrot Boy: To you who live on this planet right now

From: Parrot Boy

To: Professor Watanabe

Kikaijima Coral Camp turned out to be a wonderful experience to me.

Today, I want to tell you a very scary story. It happened during a craft class the other day. I noticed that a classmate of mine was making something interesting. “What’s that?” I took a look at it, and I got really scared. It featured an terrible world – the Earth some time in the future with its lakes filled with garbage and waste. “Gotta do something right now,” I thought. I felt very scared, but nobody would listen to me at first. “Who cares about global warming?” I was surprised to see that so many of my classmates shrugged off my concern so easily. But as I talk to them about global warming many times, they got more and more eco-friendly. And I’m so glad to see that. What I had said to them had an influence on their thoughts and behaviors. I dream that someday in the future global warming will have been solved completely, so that all of us can live happily without being worried about it at all.

To make my dream come true, please research more and more about corals.

I myself want to be a biologist in the future too, because I was so impressed by the researchers at KIKAI Institute!

I enjoyed Kikaijima Coral Camp a lot. I’d like to join you in the next summer too.

Parrot Boy

From: Professor Watanabe

To: Parrot Boy

I received your message when I was on a research trip to Hawai’i Islands. I was having a sad, painful moment then because, after days of exhausting swimming and diving in the sea, I hadn’t been able to find any single colony of the coral species that I was looking for. But I felt very encouraged to read your message. Thank you.

Please don’t forget the fear that you have right now. It’s very important that you feel afraid. When you grow up to be an adult, you might have difficulty seeing things as they are. Or you might tend to interpret them as you wish them to be. Various species of organisms inhabit this planet, adapting themselves to the wonderful nature surrounding them. Each species has its own history of survival, and human is no exception. We have showed up only recently in the Earth’s long history. That makes us newcomers compared to corals, for example, who have lived here for hundreds of million years. We were physically weak, so we tried to be smart to adapt ourselves to the surrounding environments. We cut down trees to make food and houses. We dressed ourselves to live in cold places. We used fire to overcome the fear for the darkness during the nighttime. And finally, we discovered electricity. Today, not only are we able to survive various environments, but we are able to change them as well.

It’s very sad that we are using those powers in the ways that destroy the nature and harm other species.

The main cause of global warming is CO2. It is released into the atmosphere when we burn coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. Life on this planet took a long time containing CO2 in the atmosphere into the Earth’s crust. Part of that became coal and oil, things that we use for generating electricity or driving cars. In a short period of time, we are releasing what other organisms took long time to contain underground. To make matters worse, we are also destroying the animals that contribute to produce carbonate rock – the Earth’s largest carbon storage. Those animals are the corals. The CO2 we are releasing cause the Earth to warm up, get dissolved into the sea water, give too much stress on the corals. The corals support the biodiversity of marine life by creating coral reefs for other species to inhabit. What would happen to them if we go on releasing CO2 into the atmosphere?

The best solution is for us all to stop releasing C02 into the atmosphere at once. But it would be very difficult. All of us understand that it is the best, but most of us wouldn’t like that, because we wouldn’t like to let go of the convenient, comfortable life we enjoy right now. Also, if we look outside Japan, there is a disagreement between the countries that used to release CO2 in the past and the countries that have only started to use fossil fuels recently. The former want to stop releasing C02, but the latter want to use more fossil fuels to develop more. What should we do in such circumstances? How can we leave this beautiful Mother Nature for the future generations? Unfortunately, I haven’t figured it out yet. But I’d like to keep on looking for the answer and do what I can do – just like you and your classmates did. When the president of a certain country said that burning fossil fuels might not had necessarily caused global warming, some people strongly disagreed and protested. It is important to speak up and raise a voice. Why can’t we say for sure that it was burning fossil fuels that caused the global warming, even though we all agree that CO2’s greenhouse effect warms up the Earth? It’s partly because there is no data to show the direct relationship between the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere and the changes in the temperatures since we started to use fossil fuels. Hawai’i has the longest record of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, but it covers only 60 years. As for CO2 in the ocean, the coverage period becomes shorter. Disappointed? But that’s the reality. It is possible, of course, to calculate and speculate the past trends by using computers. But CO2 is circulated in a complex system where the atmosphere, the oceans, and life come into play. The behavior of us human is also complicated as well. We think it is necessary to first collect the direct data to accurately evaluate the influence of human activities on the global climate change.

In the last Science Camp, I had told you about the importance of “perceiving”, “discovering”, “communicating”, and “preserving”. It is wonderful that you have carried out most of them. I feel very encouraged to imagine kids like you to grow up to be the pioneers of the future generations. As for me representing my generation, I’d like to do what I can do one by one with patience and leave some tips for taking actions for the future. And… I’d like to talk with you all about the future. Thank you again for your wonderful message and support. I look forward to seeing you next year.

This articles were originally written in Japanese and translated by Shohei Isokawa.