The Wonders of the RIKEN Campus

As we found out today, there is so much more to RIKEN than just its particle accelerator. RIKEN actually stands for RIkagaku KENkyūsho, Japan’s largest research organization (and almost entirely state funded). RIKEN conducts groundbreaking research in nearly every field. At the Wako campus, state of the art laboratories and equipment allow Japan’s top scientists to conduct cutting-edge research that pushes the frontiers of possibility. From discovering new elements to neurological research and even to three dimensional imaging, RIKEN does it all. Dr. Kishida so kindly took us on a tour of RIKEN’s facilities, which displayed all of RIKEN’s accomplishments. We Exeter students wish to express our most sincere and grateful thanks to Dr. Kishida for taking time out of his busy schedule to accommodate us and show us RIKEN’s facilities.

First, we visited RIKEN’s Brain Science Institute, where we saw some wonderful exhibits on brain anatomy, brain development, and psychology. On one table lay an enormous replica of a human brain, complete with its labyrinth of whorls (in three dimensions, too!), to-scale cerebellum, and a mesmerizing set of grooves. Arianna and I were enthralled by its removable parts, which allowed us to see the interior of the human brain. A microscope sat on another display. Underneath the microscope’s powerful scope lay actual human brain tissue. Inside, we all felt a little special something knowing that the tissue was once part of a living, breathing human. Someone died to provide that for science, but science shall be advanced because of that someone’s sacrifice. At first we didn’t know why there was a basketball net and some miniature basketballs hiding in the corner, but we (rather comically) found out that they served as a demonstration to show that brains are plastic when it comes to learning. First we simply tossed  basketballs into the net. After several throws, we donned vision-distorting glasses that threw everything off. Even though the hoop was in reality directly in front of us, it appeared to the left. When we tried tossing a basketball, it veered far to the left, as expected. However, after a few throws, our throws successfully swished into the hoop – a clear illustration that our brains are plastic enough and adaptable enough to change the way our bodies move to throw the ball. Interestingly enough, when we removed the glasses, our next shot went far to the right, even though there was absolutely nothing distorting our vision. This implies that our brains had been trained to order our bodies to throw rightwards during the time we wore those distortion glasses, showing that human brains are especially adaptable. Because this was a Brain Science Center, inevitably, we encountered some optical illusions.

Are these pictures of an old woman or of a young woman? Or both?
Are these pictures of an old woman or of a young woman? Or both?

Having filled our brains with the neurological information disseminated in the Brain Science Institute, Dr. Kishida, Mr. Blackwell, and we students meandered into RIKEN’s museum. There, displays showcasing RIKEN’s innumerable accomplishments adorned the entire room. Writing about every single one of the items there that wowed us would multiply this already lengthy post by approximately ten times, so I shall only present the highlights. Polyester is currently an especially popular material for industrial uses, able to be formed into films, sheets, and fibers. Its most common usage is in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, the same plastic found in most plastic water bottles. Polyester is horrible for the environment; it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years to decompose, it clogs our ever-expanding landfills, and it poisons the oceans. However, many bacteria produce bio-polyesters to use as an energy source. RIKEN’s Center for Sustainable Resource Science managed to harness these bacterial polyesters to create biodegradable polyester, which can easily decompose and eliminates many of the problems traditional polyesters cause. This ties in greatly to Japan’s omnipresent emphasis on protecting nature, which emphasizes RIKEN’s strong belief in using science to save the Earth. Another particularly interesting development by RIKEN is its automated incubator for bacteria. Traditional researchers had to grow and monitor bacterial individually by hand -a painstaking process that required mindnumbing amounts of researcher-hours. Named “HiTS,” RIKEN’s device automatically monitors bacterial growth in up to 96 different samples, greatly improving research efficiency. I would love to keep writing about the many wonders RIKEN has come up with, but that would take up too many words, so I will end this section here.

To our complete surprise, were were given very special opportunities to see RIKEN’s more modern developments. In April of this year (2015), RIKEN acquired a new supercomputer called the Hokusai Great Wave supercomputer. It has the ability to perform one quadrillion floating point operations per second, entire orders of magnitude greater than iPhones and desktop computers. With 34,560 cores spread out over a huge expanse of blinking lights, hydric cooling systems, and whirring machines busily transferring data, the supercomputer was truly a sight to behold! It was such an honor to be able to see, and in some cases touch, one of the premier supercomputers in the whole world.

Part of RIKEN's massive supercomputer.
Part of RIKEN’s massive supercomputer.

We were also shown the formidable power of the machine. As a demonstration, an employee allowed us to regard stunning three-dimensional animations generated by the supercomputer, spanning thousands of time jumps, of aerodynamics and thermodynamics – both of which require a massive amount of calculations. We saw the path of air molecules around a baseball, with all of its chaotic vortices that gives aerodynamics professors with headaches. We saw heat transfer from a steaming lobster into the surrounding air. The accuracy of the animation only serves to show once thing – the amazing computing power the Hokusai affords RIKEN. RIKEN deserves every byte of it for all it has done.

As a final shocker, we were even allowed into the room with the world’s finest particle accelerator, and shown around by Dr. Koji Morimoto, the laboratory head himself. Dr. Morimoto told us about how the researchers used a device called GARIS to detect alpha particles spontaneously emitted by supermassive particles, and counts them in order to determine which element produced them. Element 113 was actually synthesized with RIKEN’s particle accelerator. “Once every 200 days,” Dr. Morimoto said, “we find one [atom of element 113].” The data analysis room was scary enough, with thousands of wires that absolutely swarmed entire shelves of monitors and displays, leaving little room for movement.

Thank goodness it's all wired correctly.
Thank goodness it’s all wired correctly.

As for the actual GARIS itself, I have no words. Only pictures.

A panorama of only some of the equipment in the particle detector.
A panorama of only some of the equipment in the particle detector.
A new target they are building to detect elements 119 and 120, which are so much larger than the largest known elements.
A new target they are building to detect elements 119 and 120, which are so much larger than the largest known elements.
Another panorama that captures more of the massive space.
Another panorama that captures more of the massive space.
More of the amazing machinery needed to operate such an amazing facility.

We went into the room expecting to be amazed. We left in a trancelike wonder at such a beautiful machine. It is said that all magic is just science at its core. This is that exact scientific core inside of all magic. It has alchemical power. It represents the pinnacle of mankind, showing our power of making elements that nature herself cannot. Nobody who went in came back the same, for we were all fundamentally changed.

I would like to thank Dr. Kishida, for giving us some of his precious time to share the magic of physics; Dr. Morimoto, for showing us the particle accelerator; the RIKEN Institute and the Japanese government, for allowing us to enter the RIKEN campus; Mr. Blackwell, Mr. Yang, Mrs. Kuwana, the Exeter Alumni Association in Japan, and Phillips Exeter Academy, for making this trip possible; the Tokiwa and Yamada families, for hosting us students; and everybody else for making this trip so great up to this point.


Jeffrey Qiao


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