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Two UC Irvine Scientists Win Nobel Prizes

October 12, 1995|K.C. COLE | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry landed like a vindication Wednesday on two UC Irvine scientists whose work was long overlooked by the scientific Establishment.

Both prizes rewarded scientists who pursued unpopular ideas with patience and persistence despite the apathy and sometimes outright censure of their colleagues. "It shows that instantaneous disparagement says nothing about the vitality of scientific ideas," said Caltech science historian Daniel Kevles.

"It's about time, and I'm glad they did it on the same day," said Irvine Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening.

UC Irvine professor F. Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland, 68, won the prize in chemistry along with his colleague Mario Molina, now at MIT, for discovering that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as refrigerants and propellants in spray cans were eating a hole in the Earth's protective ozone umbrella--essential to life on Earth. Their prize was shared with Paul Crutzen, 62, a Dutch scientist working in Germany.

UC Irvine professor emeritus Frederick Reines, 77, was awarded the physics prize for tracking down a subatomic particle in 1955 that was so elusive it is called the "spinning nothing." Another California physicist, Martin L. Perl of Stanford, won along with Reines for finding a super-heavy electron that came as a completely unexpected addition to the particle zoo. The Nobel committee cited the physicists for discovering "two of nature's most remarkable subatomic particles."

The chemistry prize also marked the first time the Nobel committee has made such a bald political statement. Hal Moore, former dean of the physical sciences department at Irvine, said it was impossible to get inside the minds of the committee, but if they weren't trying to send a message to world governments about ozone depletion, "it's not a bad idea, because we need to take this very, very seriously."

Only recently, two California congressmen, Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), took steps to try to ease restrictions on CFCs. Radio and television commentator Rush Limbaugh has frequently dismissed fears about ozone depletion as "balderdash" and "poppycock."

However, Royal Swedish Academy member Henning Rodhe said he hoped the prize would "put to rest this debate."

Mexican-born Molina said he hopes the prize will also inspire young scientists from Third World countries. Until now, the only previous Latin American to win a science Nobel was Luis Leloir of Argentina, who won the chemistry prize in 1970.

The physics prize, although awarded for fundamental research into invisible particles, also carried a practical warning to U.S. politicians who are "turning their backs on science," according to Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, who won a Nobel in 1988.

"People always say, 'Look how many Nobel prizes U.S. physicists win,' " he said. "But that was in the good old days. They were all for work done 20 or 30 years ago."

Lederman said it is highly unlikely that the U.S. physicists will continue to bring home Nobels, because our educational system is "bankrupt" and because the United States abandoned projects such as the superconducting super-collider that would have produced forefront discoveries.

"I loved both these prizes," said Lederman, who won his Nobel for discovering another species of "the spinning nothing," or neutrino. Reines' discovery actually came first. He didn't win his prize until this year, said Haim Harari of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, noting that his results weren't "crystal clear" like Lederman's.

"We were obviously disappointed a few years ago when he [Reines] wasn't recognized," said Moore. His counterpart, Robert Peccei, UCLA dean of science and arts, concurred: "They sort of righted a wrong," he said. "It's a great day for Irvine."

The physics prizes, although unrelated, both were awarded for discoveries of particles in the same family; six of these so-called "leptons," or "light ones," make up half of the building blocks of nature. (The other six are quarks--the last member of that family was discovered last year.)

Although they may seem esoteric, they are behind every natural phenomenon from starlight to motor oil. "If you ask any question--why is the sky blue, why are clouds white--you get back to these fundamental building blocks," said Lederman.

Reines received an unexpected reward in 1987 when an exploding star, or supernova, rained down neutrinos in great quantities on an enormous underground detector set up by Reines and colleagues to catch neutrinos from the sun.

"It's fitting that the man who first saw a neutrino was also the first to see a neutrino coming from outer space," said Harari.

Unfortunately, the 77-year-old Reines was hospitalized with "normal diseases of old age," according to a spokeswoman, and was unavailable for comment.

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