Scientists at U.S. institutions swept the Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics this year, and a California research center was a key player in pioneering research that led to the awarding of the physics prize to three experimenters.
The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded Wednesday to three physicists who made major discoveries about the fundamental nature of matter while working 20 years ago at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park. Two of the winners are professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the other is Canadian-born Richard E. Taylor, 60, now at Stanford University.
Elias James Corey, 62, of Harvard University won the prize in chemistry for research that simplified the production of plastics and other artificial fibers, paints, dyes, pesticides and drugs.
One of the Americans who shared in the physics award is Henry W. Kendall, 63, of MIT, who is also chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Kendall has been at the forefront of that organization's attack on what it considers threatening scientific ventures ranging from nuclear power plants to the "Star Wars" defense system. The third physics recipient is Jerome I. Friedman, 60, also of MIT.
Each prize carries a cash award of $710,000.
Kendall said he expects the award will change his life dramatically.
"These things wrench people's lives out of shape," Kendall said in a telephone interview. He said he expects to devote more of his time to scientific issues that could have profound sociological and environmental impacts, including the postulated global warming trend known as the greenhouse effect.
Kendall's role in social issues had nothing to do with his Nobel, however.
The coveted prize was awarded for what the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences described as "long and rather boring experimental work" that led to a greater understanding of the inner workings of the atom. Specifically, the award recognizes the three scientists' evidence that subatomic particles called "quarks" actually exist.
"The quark theory already existed but was seen as a mathematical model," Ingvar Lindgren, a member of the academy, said at a news conference in Stockholm. "But the experiments of this year's winners clearly showed that quarks really exist."
"Many with me believe that with quarks, science has found the final building blocks of matter," Lindgren said.
"I knew it was clearly a classical achievement that changed the way one looked at the structure of things," said W. K. H. Panofsky, one of the grand old men of physics, who was director of the Stanford center when the work was done.
The experimenters were building on the theoretical work of Caltech's Murray Gell-Mann, who won the Nobel in 1969 partly for formulating the concept that matter is made up of six types of tiny particles he called quarks. Using the Stanford accelerator, the three scientists slammed subatomic particles into a target at nearly the speed of light. The fierce collisions created even smaller particles, and in the debris the researchers found the first trace of quarks, thus largely confirming Gell-Mann's theory.
The discovery was the product of human curiosity, Friedman said.
"As human beings, we have great curiosity about how nature works," he said. "Human beings try to understand everything."
"I thought I was still asleep and dreaming," Friedman said of receiving an early-morning phone call from the academy.
"It's a madhouse," Kendall said of his office at MIT. "The academy called up at 5 o'clock this morning, which was very civilized. But since then it has just turned into a shambles."
Kendall's credentials gave credibility to anti-nuclear protesters two decades ago when he challenged nuclear safety on issues ranging from the reliability of power plants to the safe disposal of radioactive waste. He said Wednesday that his colleagues in the world of science grew to accept his role as a combatant in the nuclear arena.
"People sensed the correctness of it," he said. "And any lingering doubts were put to rest at Three Mile Island."
Kendall said the Nobel will only enhance his efforts to explore the darker sides of science.
"I am very deeply concerned about the effects of science and technology in misapplication and damage that it does," he said.
Harvard's Corey, this year's chemistry laureate, received the award not for the synthesis of any specific molecule, but for a lifetime of achievement. The Nobel citation said Corey, 62, has devised syntheses for about 100 important natural products, making it possible for them to be mass-produced from inexpensive starting materials.
The Swedish academy specifically cited a substance naturally found in the ginkgo tree and now used to treat blood disturbances in the elderly as well as asthma. Corey also has synthesized compounds affecting blood coagulation, reproduction and the immune system, the academy said.
"It is thanks to Corey's contributions that many of these pharmaceuticals are commercially available," the citation said.