Photo/Illutration A robot called UV Buster kills the novel coronavirus by irradiating it with deep ultraviolet rays at a PCR test room in Tokyo’s Nihon University Itabashi Hospital on June 9. An Asahi Shimbun reporter took this photo while wearing protective gear under expert supervision. (Tsubasa Setoguchi)

Probably because I was a frail child, my grandfather told me one summer when I was in elementary school, "If you don't go out and catch some rays, you are going to catch a cold in winter."

After the summer holiday was over, I felt envious as I watched a deeply tanned classmate standing on the stage to receive a prize.

Ultraviolet rays are interesting, in that even though they are invisible, they are sometimes worshipped, but utterly abhorred at other times.

Ever since they were discovered in 1801 by a German physicist, their evaluation has oscillated violently between "beneficial" and "harmful," according to a recently published book titled "Shigaisen no Shakaishi" (Social history of ultraviolet rays).

For instance, when sunbathing was all the rage in the 1930s, a scientific journal encouraged the public to "eat the sun," and factory workers got their dose of ultraviolet rays in special rooms set up for the purpose.

The fad eventually cooled off but returned three decades later. Tanned skin became eminently desirable again, and a cosmetics company came up with an ad that said in effect, "You've got to let the sun love you."

The next turn of the tide came in the 1980s with a U.S. magazine report that essentially condemned ultraviolet rays as a dangerous cause of skin cancer. And when the theory became widespread that the rays also cause wrinkles and blemishes, sunbathing came to be perceived as "anathema to beauty," the Japan Meteorological Agency started issuing ultraviolet ray warnings.

The above-mentioned book's author, Kim Boumsoung, 48, is a professor at the Hiroshima Institute of Technology.

He was a junior high school pupil when he saw a group photo in a magazine of buff-naked U.S. soldiers exposing themselves to ultraviolet rays. This, Kim recalled, eventually decided the theme of his research.

"What we accept as scientific fact today does not necessarily remain true forever," Kim noted. "In that sense, ultraviolet rays are a perfect teaching material that helps us understand the sheer amplitude they demonstrate."

These days, the entire nation is sweltering in brutal heat. Even I, who aspired for a deep tan as a child, am now relying on sunscreen every day to protect myself from ultraviolet rays.

With their awesome power, I wish they would just decimate the novel coronavirus rather than damage my skin.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 14

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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.