Last week was Big Prize week for scientists. As usual, the greatest prestige, if not quite the biggest money, came with the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry: $40,000 each.
The Parity Killers. Two young Chinese living in the U.S., Drs. Chen Ning Yang and Tsung Dao Lee, split the Nobel physics prize for destroying the principle of "Conservation of Parity," on which a good deal of modern physics had been based. The principle says that objects which are mirror images of each other must obey the same physical rules. As Drs. Yang and Lee dug deep into the mysteries of the matter, they felt that they could not do without parity, but they found several basic things that could not be explained if parity were observed with full reverence.
They broke this impasse by proving theoretically that, in key cases, parity need not be observed. Neither Yang nor Lee is an experimental man; so they merely suggested how their theory might be proved. When two experimental proofs came through early this year, parity was dead, and the Nobel Prize was practically in the bag (TIME, Jan. 28).
Dr. Yang, 34, was born in Hofei in Anhwei province, the son of a mathematician now teaching in Shanghai. He moved to Kunming when the Japanese invaded the north, and got his master's degree from National Tsinghua University. In 1945 he came to the U.S. (on a Tsinghua scholarship) and got his doctorate in 1948 at the University of Chicago. Since 1949 Dr. Yang has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where his office has a single decoration, a small picture of Einstein.
Dr. Lee, 30, looks as if he might still be an undergraduate. He studied in various southern Chinese universities, but got no formal degrees. In 1946 he went to the University of Chicago on a Chinese government fellowship. He lived in International House with Dr. Yang, got his doctorate in 1950. A full professor of physics at Columbia University, Dr. Lee is now on leave to work at Princeton with Yang.
The Chemistry of Life. The Nobel Prize in chemistry went to Sir Alexander Todd, 50, a lowland Scot born in Glasgow, son of a department-store manager. At Cambridge University, where he is a professor of chemistry, big (6 ft. 6 in.) Sir Alexander is fondly known is "Todd Almighty." He lives in a comfortable house with a big garden, lots of flowers, two cats, a radio but no TV, and he rides to the laboratory every morning on a bicycle.
Educated as an organic chemist (University of Glasgow), Sir Alexander got interested in the complex chemical compounds that abound in living cells. Biologists knew little in those days about these compounds which are so unstable that attempts to study them usually destroy them. Sir Alexander tried a new approach. Applying the subtle methods of organic chemistry, he synthesized, one by one, a wide range of delicate biochemicals, including vitamins E and B1. His research led him to the nucleus of the cell, where the all-powerful genes are stored. These mysterious chemicals, which control heredity and growth, are made of nucleic acids, and Sir Alexander worked out methods of studying their complex structure. By use of his methods, it may soon be possible to synthesize nucleic acids, perhaps even molecules that will grow and reproduce. For coming close to the secret of life, Sir Alexander won his Nobel Prize.