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Knowing the real thing enhances your imagination

--- Are scaly-foot gastropods a kind of snail that lives in the deep sea?

Black scaly-foot gastropod (courtesy: JAMSTEC)
Black scaly-foot gastropod (courtesy: JAMSTEC)

They are conch with iron sulfide scales, living on the deep-sea floor, 2,500 meters below the surface of the Indian Ocean. They are a rare species and look like imaginary creatures only found in a computer game or something. They got so much attention worldwide when they were discovered in 2001. The snails thrive on the deep-sea floor, but if they are put in regular seawater, they will quickly die from dermatitis caused by bacteria. How they grow is still under study. They can survive on the surface for only three weeks, so we sent them to Japan by air. We wanted to show them to people when they were still alive, so we could share the excitement we had when we saw them for the first time.

--- I’m sure the children got it.

I hope so. I would like to continue to present our work this way. Looking at pictures or specimens of deep-sea organisms, you imagine how they live at the bottom of the ocean. But you can imagine them better if you know them in real life. This is one of the reasons we wanted to show people the scaly-foot gastropods alive. In reality, they are different from what you imagined, and what you feel when you realize this is very important. We go to the unexplored deep sea because, every time we go there, we find that our imagination was so wrong.

Selling dreams is a scientist’s job

--- Now, what are your dreams?

There must be unknown organisms living quietly at absolutely dark, unexplored deep-sea hydrothermal vents. I’d like to be the first to discover them. My dream is to keep on running towards my scientific goals, and suddenly collapse and die when I’m halfway there. That’s how I want to leave this world.

--- I can picture you continuing to make new discoveries and pumping your fist. I’ve heard that when you make a discovery, you feel victorious. What is it exactly that you win against?

From a 2009 survey in the Indian Ocean. Dr. Takai felt victorious when he found a group of white scaly-foot snails on sea floor. The whitish and brown shells are scaly-foot snails. (courtesy: Ken Takai/JAMSTEC)
From a 2009 survey in the Indian Ocean. Dr. Takai felt victorious when he found a group of white scaly-foot snails on sea floor. The whitish and brown shells are scaly-foot snails. (courtesy: Ken Takai/JAMSTEC)

Against myself. I would say it’s like winning at the end of a long race, after overcoming the moments when I felt almost discouraged or defeated. I’ve been to the deep sea almost thirty times, but it’s not like anyone who wants to go can go. In my case, I’ve been able to go so many times because I have sort of a con artist’s talent that allows me to write a good proposal, with all my imagination and obsession, and to get my bosses to like and approve it. Needless to say, I’ve been given those chances because I’ve proven with my performance that I am not a con... I always feel the pressure to find something, or else I will be in trouble. So fighting against the worry and fear, I always try to lift my spirits, telling myself to believe in my imagination. This is why I feel victorious when I discover something.

--- If you were to give advice to young scientists, what would it be?

I would like them to embrace the fact that they are doing research out of fun and curiosity. In other words, scientists should not confine themselves.

--- What do you mean?

For instance, I am asking the Science Council of Japan to give us a budget for building the SHINKAI 12000. The people who evaluate such projects at the council are scientists too, but nonetheless, they ask us whether there will be enough quantitative results to justify a budget of tens of billions of yen. In my mind, scientists shouldn’t be talking so cheap. I want to hear them say instead, “We don’t know what kind of an outcome we can expect from this. If you have confidence that you can get priceless research results big enough to change the way people see the world, go for it. But if you fail, you take the responsibility.” You never know what kind of profit is hidden in the results of exploration. If there is a big risk and a chance of a big return, whether you get intimidated by the unknown risk or invest in the possible gain – I think that decision should not be up to scientists but to the nation. Then I think the nation should make the decision not only based on logic but also with a vision and attitude for the country it aims to be.

I believe it’s priceless – worth more than tens of billions of yen – that many children are motivated to work at JAMSTEC, or at a research institution, company or organization that has something to do with marine projects; or if they have a dream and study hard to achieve it, or interact with many people; or more indirectly, if they become interested in oceans, living things, or the environment. And I believe that a national budget should be spent on things like this. It is not the business of scientists to explain how our lives will be better if a certain amount of budget is allocated. But because scientists are forced to do this, they get more and more discouraged from enjoying research, and as a result, dreams are being taken out of science. Even if people think that I am crazy, I will not stop asking for money for my dreams, because selling dreams is a scientist’s job.

Waiting for JAXA to become “pure, bright and joyful”

--- So you mean it’s important to convey your opinions clearly.

Dr. Takai with JAMSTEC president Dr. Asahiko Taira (courtesy: JAMSTEC)
Dr. Takai with JAMSTEC president Dr. Asahiko Taira (courtesy: JAMSTEC)

No matter how young you are, you should speak up when you disagree. I think this is a major premise of science. What’s good about JAMSTEC is that even a young researcher can say to the president, “You are wrong.” At a staff get-together with the president, it’s not unusual to see young scientists disagreeing with him. Probably something like this would be difficult in a very large organization. JAMSTEC has an absolute rule that everyone is equal before a scientific fact, and that, regardless of status, fame or age, whoever said the right thing is the greatest. This rule reminds us that we are working in a very fair environment.

Having said that, though, needless to say, if you wish to persuade the organization, you need to prove your ability with achievements – by writing a lot of research papers, or by making yourself look more important by applying for awards, for example. To make the top brass shut up, you need to establish your ability. For instance, if someone is recognized as capable based on his ability to write a great paper, his opinions cannot be ignored. You need to develop something that can convince people of your greatness.

--- Finally, could you tell us what your expectations are for JAXA.

What I would like to see with JAXA, or I should say JAXA employees, is to have pride in working at the agency, and to conduct research and development with determination. I am sorry for sounding arrogant (laugh). I may look like a carefree person, but when I give my opinion, I am always prepared – I am ready to be let go by JAMSTEC. As long as you have that readiness and belief in the rightness of your words, I bet they will see no harm in your intention, and they will understand your resolve. So if everyone can have such an attitude, I imagine that JAXA will become an even better organization.

JAXA is a much bigger organization than JAMSTEC. I’m not sure if it’s because of the size, but each individual seems to keep a low profile at JAXA. If that’s the intention of the organization, I think it’s nonsense. For example, I am saying that if something goes wrong with the SHINKAI 12000 project, I will take responsibility. But of course the person who will really take the responsibility will be someone in a higher position than me – I think that the president can take the blame (laugh). I think JAXA will become a more attractive research institution if it becomes a free, non-bureaucratic and exciting organization that allows individuals to be more willing to express their determination or opinions. I am again very sorry for speaking so insolently (laugh).

I am just hoping that JAXA will also become a “pure, bright and joyful” research institution so they can say without hesitation, “What’s wrong with having fun?” (laugh). It’s because science is just so much fun!

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