Digging Deep with Novelist Shin Iyohara:
We feel moved, because what moves us is there.
This is the second in the 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 researchers with intriguing projects. In this installment, Mr. Iyohara talked with Associate Professor Ryuho Kataoka of the National Institute of Polar Research, who works to elucidate mysteries surrounding various phenomena in space and on Earth through cutting-edge research. Their conversation revealed how facts and fiction are connected. (The first installment of the “Special Contents” series can be found here.)
Guest: Shin Iyohara (Fiction writer)
Mr. Iyohara is a fiction writer known for using his deep knowledge in earth and planetary science to write novels. Mr. Iyohara, who received his PhD of 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 a 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.
Researcher: Associate Professor Ryuho Kataoka (National Institute of Polar Research)
Prof. Kataoka is an astrophysics scholar who specializes in studies of space physics and is known for his research on auroras and space weather forecasting. He is a recipient of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s Young Scientists’ Award 2015, and hosted “Solar Flare and Space Disaster” on NHK Culture Radio in 2018. He is the author of many books, including “Mystery of Auroras that Appeared in Japan’s Skies” (2020) and “Space Disaster” (2016).
Sekki, the aurora illustrated in a classical book
When the Sun becomes more active, many black spots begin to appear on the surface of the Sun. And major solar events, such as explosions, are followed by a temporary weakening of Earth’s magnetic field, which sometimes causes auroras — a phenomenon normally observed in polar regions — to appear in lower latitudes. It can also cause satellite failures and massive power outages on the ground, which explains why people call such a string of events a “space disaster.” In 2017, Prof. Kataoka published a study that found the phenomenon referred as “sekki” (red sign) in Japanese classical books to be identical in every way to the aurora reproduced with the use of today’s simulation technology.
Iyohara: You’ve written many books for regular, non-academic readers. One of those books, “The Mystery of the Aurora that Appeared in Japan’s Skies,” published in 2020, intrigued me the most among all science-related books that I’ve read recently.
Kataoka: Is that right?
Iyohara: When a large magnetic storm occurs, sometimes auroras appear in low latitudes, as described in classical books that called those auroras “sekki.” Your book gradually unravels the “sekki” mystery, and the way you describe the process is just so vivid and thrilling.
Kataoka: Thank you! We were able to simulate the sekki through calculation. I wrote about how we recreated an aurora that perfectly mates the ones delineated in classical books.
Iyohara: Anyone will find your book fascinating. Once you’ve read the book, you can’t help but think sekki’s got to be an aurora! (Laughter) One thing I wanted to ask you is why there’s no mentioning of solar black spots in Japanese classical books, whereas there are plenty of references about it in Chinese documents.
Kataoka: Actually, there are. Black spots references in ancient Japanese documents are limited to a specific era. There’s nothing after that, and then a sketch of black spots suddenly appear in an Edo period document.
Iyohara: I’m very surprised and intrigued to know that no one has tried to imagine what an aurora might look like in the skies above Japan, which is located in lower altitudes.
Kataoka: That’s right. And when the mystery revealed itself…
Iyohara: When I learned of the reason from your book, it gave me goosebumps. I thought this is some great stuff I’ve read!
Kataoka: I was also surprised to find out the reason, and simply tried to tell that to everyone.
What happened in 1204 that Teika wrote about?
In 2017, Prof. Kataoka and his team also published a study in which they discovered the formation pattern of giant magnetic storms that occurred in the Heian and Kamakura periods. The team used the description of the aurora observed in Kyoto in 1204, which Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) wrote in his “Meigetsu-ki,” as the foothold for their investigation. Teika kept a detailed record of the “long-lasting red aurora,” which is believed to be Japan’s oldest record of an aurora observed in a lower-latitude area like Kyoto.
Iyohara: How much weight have scholars historically placed on the description of “sekki” in their studies of "Meigetsu-ki" by Teika? Or did they not think it was important at all?
Kataoka: I heard that researchers, because Teika was a bit of a fantasy writer, didn’t necessarily think his descriptions were all that factual, like those written by scientists.
Iyohara: Reading your book made me realize that many of us may never have taken the information in those classical books seriously, because we have a preconceived idea that Fujiwara no Teika wouldn’t present a factual description of natural phenomena, or that there’s no way the sekki picture from the Edo period was a faithful sketch of what people saw. But you actually did calculations to prove that’s how the aurora indeed appeared. That stunned me. Also, your book talks about the person who sketched an aurora observed in Niigata during the Showa period. This person said, according to your book, “The country had waited to see that aurora, and I happened to be the one to keep the record of it.” That shook me to the core. You’re waiting to see something you have wanted to see. Therefore, you are prepared to record it accurately, even though you’re an amateur with no expert knowledge. I thought this person was saying that in such a calm manner. How impressive is that?
Kataoka: He was a medical doctor.
Iyohara: Was he? I think humans are born with this ability to intuitively detect something in nature or observe nature. So, anyone can look at nature in a scientific way, if given an opportunity. Looking back on my own work, I hope that my books will provide readers with that opportunity.
Iyohara: The book cites some lines from Torahiko Terada’s “The Haiku Spirit,” which say, “You cannot create a haiku by simply observing and recognizing the beauty of nature," and that haiku writing becomes “only possible through an introspection of the organic relationship between yourself and the world around you.” It’s about how you define your relation to the nature that you observed. The process of writing books like mine also comes down to that.
That pigeon from ‘Arnaux and Lemon’
Kataoka: Of all your works, “Silver Snow in August” is my most favorite novel. But I like “Arnaux and Lemon” (from “Silver Snow in August”) just as much, though I’m not sure why it appeals to me. Perhaps because of the messenger pigeon in the story…
Iyohara: A pigeon appears in one of your books, too. Maybe it’s because pigeons use geomagnetism to fly.
Kataoka: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center has doves on display. The doves were there, for some reason, in the midst of several exhibits themed on “familiar things affected by what goes on in space.” Actually, when I was conducting research on aurora borealis in 1958, I was surprised to find out newspapers used messenger pigeons until about 60 years ago.
Iyohara: That’s right. It would be interesting if there was an old newspaper article about their company’s messenger pigeon having gone missing during a geomagnetic storm, or something like that.
Kataoka: Yes, it would be. Are pigeons really impacted by geomagnetism?
Iyohara: It’s hard to know a clear answer to the question. In pigeon racing, once in a while, the majority of pigeons fail to return. Some people claim that’s because a big geomagnetic storm occurred during the race, and some others speculate raptors, pigeons’ natural nemesis, might have attacked them.
Kataoka: Yes. You know, when you eat bread outside, birds would come to pick up crumbs. It’s really surprising that those birds are connected to space. You wouldn’t think that the birds that are eating your bread crumb are in sync with the universe. Once I began to look at them that way, I fell in love with them. I’ve been paying extra attention to pigeons ever since.
Iyohara: One day, my editor asked me, “Don’t messenger pigeons make you feel sad?” That question prompted to write the story in the first place. I do think messenger pigeons are sad.
Kataoka: Sad? Really?
Iyohara: I mean, humans are forcing them to follow their animal instinct. It tugs at your heartstrings. They used to be taken to war zones as a means of communication. I read of many episodes like that and thought this could make a novel. To me, though, pigeons mean geomagnetism, of course. (Laughter) That’s how the book got started.
Kataoka: I read in this novel that racing pigeons look very sharp, and I’ve been wanting to see one. I wonder if the hard training they receive changes their appearance.
Iyohara: I’ve never seen a racing pigeon, either. I’ve heard that they are very muscular and look differently from ordinary pigeons that live around us.
Kataoka: I see.
Fear of getting science wrong
Kataoka: By the way, your books cover a broad range of research themes. Do you read a lot of research papers?
Iyohara: Sure. Sometimes I read original papers written in the authors’ languages, but if a subject falls far outside my specialty area, I usually turn to review articles or documents written in Japanese.
Kataoka: I bet it requires a lot of effort to keep your antennae up in many different directions to study.
Iyohara: That’s true. But my researcher mindset dies hard. I’m more afraid to hear someone say what I wrote is scientifically wrong than hearing that they found my stories boring. (Laughter)
Kataoka: Could that be the reason your novels seem very different from anything I’ve read?
Iyohara: When I utter the word, “science,” it could turn away novel lovers, because they may conclude they wouldn’t be interested in the book even before ever taking a look at it. That’s why I thought long and hard about whether to use the word, “science,” in the writing on the cover. But,
Kataoka: But it’s there.
Iyohara: Yes, it is. I’ve decided to include it from now on. Unless people find it interesting even when I tell them it’s science, there’s no point in me writing stories.
Kataoka: If people know the science background for your stories, they can enjoy reading them even more. Even if you didn’t know, it’s still intriguing, but researchers can have more fun reading them.
Iyohara: When writing a research paper, it’s important to separate your opinions and earlier studies conducted by others. The same is true for novels because stories are based on not only your ideas but research that other people have conducted. That’s why I attach a bibliography at the end of my books. Inspirations for stories also come from scientific facts. I want my readers to understand what facts are facts, because I believe that makes reading more enjoyable as an entertainment.
Kataoka: I feel the same way. Your stories make people feel warm and light-hearted, and that’s suitable for these uncertain times we are living in. It’s exactly what people are looking for right now.
Iyohara: That’s for sure.
Kataoka: It’s an amazing way to help people learn about facts. We haven’t seen anything like this. I’m impressed by just how much difference those written words can make for the readers. I would recommend your novels to anyone, including people who are feeling hurt.
Iyohara: Down the road, I’m hoping to do some research on sea turtles, migratory birds and creatures that travel long distances, which I really like. These days, people are learning more about how birds actually migrate, thanks to the use of GPS devices attached to birds in a recent research project. So, that would be an interesting topic for me to pursue. Then, there is this topic of caldera eruptions. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, because it’s an issue that Japanese people cannot get away from.
Kataoka: I’m fundamentally interested in understanding more about space — what’s there and how they are connected, which is still a mystery for the most part. Right now, I’m focused on taking photos of aurora with a special camera, and this will continue for a while. Also, since humans are headed for the Moon and Mars, I intend to do research on radiation exposure in space, as well as on how to prevent power outages on Earth.
Interviewer: Rue Ikeya
Photographs: Toshiyuki Kono
Released on: Feb. 10, 2022 (The Japanese version released on Feb. 10, 2021)