Science Report SPECIAL

Digging Deep with Novelist Shin Iyohara:
The Chibanian Age

Welcome to Science Report’s two-part “Special Contents” series featuring the dialogues between Shin Iyohara, the award-winning author known for using his scientific knowledge in writing fiction, and various select researchers who are engaged in highly intriguing projects. For this first installment, Mr. Iyohara talked with Associate Professor Yusuke Suganuma of the National Institute of Polar Research. Prof. Suganuma, whose studies of the geological section in Chiba, Japan, culminated in the official naming of the Chibanian Age by the International Union of Geological Sciences in 2020. It may seem that Mr. Iyohara and Prof. Suganuma work in two very different worlds professionally, but their expertise overlap in many ways. They are even friends who studied under the same professor in graduate school. Mr. Iyohara’s latest novel, published in 2020, is titled: “Hachigatsu-no Gin-no Yuki (Silver Snow in August).” So, what has snow got to do with geology? Here is the conversation that took place as the two old friends reunited.

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Mayumi Oka

Guest: Shin Iyohara (Fiction writer)

Mr. Iyohara is a fiction writer known for using his deep knowledge of earth and planetary science to write novels. Mr. Iyohara, who received his PhD in science from the University of Tokyo, has said he aims to help people discover joy in learning about natural science through “entertaining stories that are also educational.” His debut novel, “Odaiba Island Baby,” won the 30th Yokomizo Seishi Mystery Award. He also received Nitta Jiro Literature Award for his book, “Tsuki-made 3 Kilo (3 Kilometers to the Moon)” in 2019, and continues to be one of the most popular authors in Japan.

Takafumi Kubota

Researcher: Associate Professor Yusuke Suganuma (National Institute of Polar Research)

Prof. Suganuma specializes in geology and paleomagnetism. He became the talk of the town in January 2020 when the International Union of Geological Sciences approved his research team’s proposal to name a geological time period as the “Chibanian Age.” Prof. Suganuma has completed five tours of the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition and has the experience of camping on the ice sheet for three months. He holds a PhD in science from the University of Tokyo where he served as assistant professor until 2009. He joined the National Institute of Polar Research as assistant professor in 2009 and was appointed to his current position in 2016. His book on the Chibanian Age, published in 2020, received the 36th Kodansha Science Publication Award.

Reuniting for the first time in a year

Iyohara: The last time we saw each other was when I received the Nitta Jiro Literature Award.

Suganuma: That’s right. We belong to the same research lab, but I think you are about four years older than me, right?

Iyohara: I was doing a postdoc in paleomagnetism while you were in the lab. I did that for about a year.

Suganuma: Did you do your postdoc at the University of Tokyo?

Iyohara: No, in Paris.

Suganuma: Oh, is that right? After that, I remember doing field research with you.

Iyohara: Yes, we did. We went to Italy for that.

Suganuma: We went twice. You then went to the U.S. for study, and I visited you there.

Iyohara: Yes, yes!

Suganuma: Our backgrounds are slightly different. Your specialty is geophysics, while mine is geology. So in Italy, I was doing geological survey, and you focused on collecting samples.

Iyohara: Our areas of studies each straddle the line between geology and geophysics, and many of our colleagues have their backgrounds in either field.

Suganuma: And there isn’t a clear line between geological and geophysics research anyway.

Iyohara: Right. Researchers who’ve mainly focused on physics research do need the help of geologists to obtain quality samples. Back in the days when plate tectonics was an emerging theory, paleomagnetism was an important part of some breakthrough research methods, such as reconstructing the positions of continents based on findings of differing directions of the geomagnetic poles in the past. But that’s not the case anymore. Now, there is a need to try newer methods, including cross-checking of different types of data and indicators.

The backstory of Chibanian research and geomagnetic reversal

Suganuma: By the way, when we were celebrating your award win, you mentioned that more people outside the academic world should know about the Chibanian Age. I began using social media to talk about it because you encouraged me to.

Iyohara: Do you have any sense of whether the media coverage of the Chibanian Age was helpful in promoting the understanding about geomagnetism among the general audience?

Suganuma: It was effective to a degree, based on the limited interactions I had with members of the audience.

Iyohara: Most people aren’t aware in the first place that Earth’s magnetic field reverses, right?

Suganuma: One of the frequently asked questions is, “Has Earth flipped upside down?”

Iyohara: “Is Earth rotating in the other direction?” is another one.

Suganuma: Yes. I bet many people still think that’s what geomagnetic reversal means, but I think the awareness has definitely grown. Earth is basically a large chunk of magnet, and its S-pole is the North Pole, and N-pole the South Pole. I explain to people that “geomagnetic reversal” refers to the N- and S-poles switching positions.

Iyohara: In a recent media interview, I mentioned that I used to study geomagnetism, and they wanted to know what the knowledge is useful for. I proceeded to ask them some questions about the Chibanian Age, and found out that in their minds, the Chibanian Age wasn’t something that is associated with geomagnetic reversal.

Suganuma: They made no association between the two, huh? Well, the fact that the geological section used for the type locality of the Chibanian Age present clear and detailed traces of geomagnetic reversal, as well as the shift from a glacial period, to an interglacial period, back to a glacier period, was really the key that enabled us to define that period.

Iyohara: What I found interesting was that we’ve been taught that the last geomagnetic reversal happened 780,000 years ago, but your research showed it was 10,000 years earlier than that. This was a surprise, and I thought it was an excellent bit of research.

Suganuma: We initially began our research on the geological section with the objective to find out in which era the last geomagnetic reversal happened. With a drilling of Antarctic ice cores being planned to obtain ice that was formed during a geomagnetic reversal, I thought it would be a good idea to firm up the timeline of geomagnetic reversals first.  Then, we stumbled onto the geologial section in Chiba. It was a “horse emerges from a gourd” (something very unexpected happens) situation.

How did Antarctic ice melt?

Suganuma: Antarctic ice cores, which are cylinder-shaped samples that you obtain by vertically drilling through the layers of snow and ice on the Antarctic continent, are considered to be time capsules. They show you all the past weather conditions by era. But the Antarctic ice sheet doesn’t tell you much about itself. Antarctic ice has been melting at alarming speeds in recent years, raising the sea level, but scientists don’t really know how warm water reaches Antarctica to cause the melt. Although things are of course being monitored, it often takes decades or more to understand periodical changes, and it’s difficult to forecast future changes based on the ongoing observations alone. This is why we are trying to reconstruct the process of the Antarctic ice melting process,  between the glacial period and present, including changes in the speed at which the melting occurred, by using geological data obtained from the sediments from the lake and offshore.
For example, scientists had previously thought that the last glacial period ended 20,000 years ago, and that all the ice on Earth melted within 10,000 years or so after that. But we now know that the ice along the Antarctic shores melted away all at once about 6,000 to 9,000 years ago. This doesn’t appear to be due to air temperature increases, though, because this melting happened sometime after a period of sudden air temperature increases in Antarctica ended. Rather, we suspect it may have been caused by the warm waters flowing to the shores of Antarctica from the deep ocean surrounding the continent.

Iyohara: That means we need to take a closer look at the inner outcrop (a cliff-like area where strata and rocks are exposed).

Suganuma: Exactly. We are now using all the methods available to us, from marine sediments to a special technique to identify the age of samples, in order to figure out how long ago the bedrock came out of the ice. In other words, it takes a long time for Antarctica’s ice to completely melt away. It cannot happen just in a few decades. At the same time, melting won’t stop once it starts. We cannot understand this process by just analyzing modern satellite images and computer simulations based on that. And that’s why we are studying geology. By analyzing geological data from a long period of time, we can understand what transpired. Geomagnetic reversal is part of such phenomena.

Iyohara: You know, the big difference between you and me is that you are always working on a variety of things. That’s very important in my opinion. Researchers are often particular about methods that they use. They may say, “I use geomagnetic measurement, and therefore, I will only do that.” That’s one way to go, but there are also those who use any method available to them. I think the latter approach is what you need to produce real results in today’s environment.

Suganuma: I’m simply not good at staying focused on one thing to master it.

Iyohara: I think that actually helped you discover what did or didn’t happen 770,000 years ago.

Stumbling onto an inspirational research paper

Iyohara: How many books do you get to bring to Antarctica?

Suganuma: Quite a few. I love reading books. There aren’t too many researchers who like reading novels, but I’m one of them. So, I enjoyed discussing books with you when we were in Italy.

Iyohara: Did I think I would be a fiction writer back then? Not really.

Suganuma: (When I heard you became a fiction writer,) I thought that made perfect sense. I mean, it didn’t occur to me that you might become a novelist one day when we were in Italy, but I knew you loved reading. By the time we were in the U.S., though you never said you wanted to become a writer, you discussed mystery books in such a way that I sort of sensed you were putting yourself in the authors’ shoes, thinking how you’d write the stories differently. By the way, your latest novel, “Hachigatsu-no Gin-no Yuki (Silver Snow in August)” draws you in so much that I finished reading it in just one night. What stuck out to me was the part about the growth of Earth’s inner core. Sorry for being such a nerd. (Laughter)

Iyohara: Not at all! The growth of Earth’s inner core is the theme of this book. And the fact that the inner core grows is even less known than geomagnetic reversal. (Laughter)

Suganuma: The scene in this book that I remember the most is where you pose this question: “Do you know the snow that falls in the inner core?” I never thought of describing it as “snowing.” It’s such a poetic expression and moved me a lot.

Iyohara: That came from the title of the research paper that I had come across, which used the word, “snowing,” in it. I liked the authors’ use of the expression.

Suganuma: It sounds very sophisticated.

Iyohara: Right. When I asked a senior researcher who specializes in the study of inner core growth about this expression, he said, “Ah, they are talking about slurry — the slurry that settles and solidifies.”

Suganuma: That doesn’t sound very cool.

Iyohara: I know.

Suganuma: “Snowing” makes it easier for you to imagine it, doesn’t it? I got a mental picture of the inner core when I read it.

Iyohara: For the readers, I look for expressions that evoke the vivid images of what’s happening deep inside Earth’s inner core.

Suganuma: And the story’s plot that takes you there, to the inner core that’s snowing, was also very moving.

Iyohara: I love mysteries to begin with. I became an author because I wanted to write mystery books. But my ideas for books and the themes I came up with were always science-related. I wasn’t necessarily trying to incorporate science into my stories. It’s just that every time I looked for an inspiration for a story, my mind was drawn back to science. I want my stories to be fun to read. I think incorporating some educational elements makes them of higher quality as entertainment. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to make a story intriguing even for readers who have no interest in science. That’s where my creativity comes in.

Suganuma: Do you start with science and develop a story from there? Or, is it the other way around?

Iyohara:  I do both. I’m always looking for the right way to connect the two.

Making research part of everyday conversation

Suganuma: The characters in your stories are also interesting.

Iyohara: Initially, I was just incorporating science into subplots, like using science labs as a backdrop for crime scenes, or the key to solving a trick. It was almost like a trivia game. My editor then suggested I write something simpler. So, I wrote a short story about heartwarming interactions between the research world and the people on the outside of it.

Suganuma: That sounds refreshing.

Iyohara: To my surprise, I received a lot of feedback that it was a totally new kind of novel. Because I have the experience of doing research. Some people are very blunt and seem unfriendly, but then you find out how genuine and brilliant they actually are. Those are the type of people I like, and I want them to be characters in my stories.

Suganuma: Was there a blunt character in your latest story? I never noticed it. Maybe that’s because being blunt is normal to us? (Laughter)

Iyohara: I know. Most people know little about the researchers’ world — far less than you might think. Common sense also doesn’t always apply to researchers. I’m often reminded that just because a story is about researchers, that doesn’t mean it’s interesting. But I hope to continue putting spotlight on those characters who demonstrate great personal qualities in my stories.

Interviewer: Rue Ikeya
Photographs: Toshiyuki Kono
Released on: Jan. 20, 2022 (The Japanese version released on Dec. 10, 2020)

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