I was quite surprised when I looked at the family tree of astronomer Yoshihide Kozai who died on Feb. 5 at age 89.

His maternal grandfather's younger brother was Kijuro Shidehara (1872-1951), who was prime minister of Japan from October 1945 to May 1946.

Kozai's paternal grandfather was a former president of Tokyo Imperial University (present-day University of Tokyo).

One would imagine that anyone with such a pedigree would have led a sheltered, care-free life of privilege. But Kozai's early life was anything but.

According to astronomer Keitaro Takahashi, an associate professor at Kumamoto University who interviewed Kozai at length, he was a second-grade elementary school student when his father, a railway engineer, was taken with illness that would keep him confined to bed for 10 years until his death.

The young Kozai's uncle, Yoshishige, a philosopher, was unable to help because he was arrested more than once under the public order maintenance law. The family lived in disgrace, and his mother could not even buy proper mourning clothes for funerals.

During his student years at the University of Tokyo, Kozai supported his siblings by working as a home tutor and failed his physics course. He decided to major in celestial mechanics, which was hardly a popular field at the time.

He explained later, "To use the Olympics analogy, I gave up trying to excel in a big event in the main arena and chose instead to compete in a minor event few people would care to attend."

He enjoyed his low-key work of calculating the movement of celestial bodies.

The "orbit" of Kozai's life, so to speak, changed in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1. Shocked by the Soviet success, the Americans invited talented foreign astronomers to the United States, and Kozai was among them. He threw himself into research at an astronomical observatory in Boston and won acclaim for discovering the so-called Kozai mechanism for determining the orbits of satellites.

Kozai went on to publish many fine works, such as "Tsuki" (Moon) and "Tenmongaku no Susume" (Introducing astronomy), every one of which brims with the author's enthusiasm to convey the wonders of the universe to his readers.

"Earth is pear-shaped," goes one of his memorable statements. Another goes, "Three billion years ago, the moon came so close to Earth, it almost broke itself." He also noted, "After more than 10 billion years, Earth may come to have a ring."

The exuberance with which Kozai explained the workings of the universe has created countless astronomy fans.

The asteroid 3040 Kozai, named in his honor, is probably orbiting near Mars now.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 15

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.