Science: America's Nobel Sweep

  • Share
  • Read Later

Ever since the ancient Greeks, scientists have been seeking to identify and understand the basic building blocks and structure of matter. Last week Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences honored three Americans whose discoveries have advanced this understanding. It awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics to Burton Richter of Stanford University and Samuel C.C. Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their investigations of subatomic particles, and gave the chemistry prize to William Lipscomb of Harvard University for his work in explaining the structure of the chemicals called boranes. Together with the previous awards of the medicine prize to Baruch Blumberg of Philadelphia's Institute for Cancer Research and Carleton Gajdusek of the National Institutes of Health, and the economics prize to Economist Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago (TIME, Oct. 25), last week's winners gave the U.S. a clean sweep of the 1976 Nobel science awards.

For Richter, 45, and Ting, 40, who will share the $162,140 physics award, recognition came much sooner than to most Nobel laureates, who often wait a decade or longer before the importance of their work is acknowledged by the Royal Academy. The two physicists won their prize for discoveries reported two years ago. In November 1974 Ting, who had been working at New York's Brookhaven National Laboratory, visited Richter at Stanford and told him he had just discovered a new member of the "subatomic zoo," the ever growing list of tiny particles identified in experiments with giant atom-smashing machines. Ting was startled to get instant confirmation of his finding; Richter had independently discovered the same particle in his own laboratory.

Charmed Particle. The bit of matter, called the J particle by Ting and the psi particle by Richter, gave solid experimental support to the evolving theory that the basic building blocks of matter are a family of particles called quarks. It provided strong evidence for the existence of the fourth quark, one that has the property that scientists whimsically call "charm." Since the simultaneous findings by Richter and Ting, at least seven more members of the J, or psi, particle family have been discovered, further strengthening the quark theory.

A quiet, intense man who commutes between M.I.T. and the giant particle accelerator at the European Nuclear Research Center (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, where he is now conducting experiments, Ting was not surprised at the news of his award. The discovery of the J particle, he says frankly, was "revolutionary." Brooklyn-born Richter. who plays squash to keep his weight under control, took his sudden fame philosophically. Says he of his discovery: "I see no immediate practical application of this discovery except in improving the understanding of the universe." But he also remembers that Lord Rutherford, the great British physicist who first described the structure of the atom, doubted that his findings would prove practical, too.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2