IRVINE — If it weren't for a chance bus ride in Hoboken, N.J., nearly six decades ago, Frederick Reines believes he would not be boarding a plane for Stockholm, Sweden, early next week to pick up a Nobel Prize.
The teen-age Reines took a seat next to the director of admissions of a little-known school named the Stevens Institute of Technology. Reines recalled he was so taken with the man that he enrolled there as an undergraduate instead of attending one of the nation's premiere science schools--the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It turned out to be a very good decision, said Reines, 77, one of two UC Irvine professors traveling to Sweden to claim a Nobel Prize--the university's first.
"I probably would have failed out of MIT," said Reines, who went on to reshape views of the universe by discovering an elusive subatomic particle called the neutrino. "It was too big."
Reines and F. Sherwood Rowland, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, spoke this week about their preparations for the acceptance ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
Reines, who was hospitalized when the Royal Swedish Academy announced the winners in mid-October, has shunned the acclaim brought on by the international honor.
"The popularity that goes along with the prize is just overwhelming," said Reines, who limited a phone interview this week to less than 10 minutes.
Reines also refused to discuss his health, saying: "That's just nobody's business."
Because of the illness, UCI's Nobel laureates had not met face-to-face since the prizes were announced. But by chance, the two ran into each other last week at a campus building and talked for about 20 minutes.
"I offered him my congratulations," said Rowland, 68, a chemistry professor. "Fred and I have worked in the same building or in the next building for 30 years. I was an admirer of his experiments before I'd ever met him."
Rowland received the prize 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 layer.
Reines, a professor emeritus, praised his UCI colleague.
"I have a great admiration for professor Rowland. We were associates long before Nobel came into the picture," he said. "We both are delighted for the good it does the country and all the way down to the students at the university."
Reines was awarded the physics prize for a long and distinguished career that began when he discovered the neutrino in 1956. He was also part of an elite group of scientists at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, where he worked on the first atomic bomb during World War II. Reines shares the award with Stanford physicist Martin L. Perl.
Colleagues said the award was long overdue, but Reines isn't so sure.
"I was surprised when I heard about it," said the Paterson, N.J., native, who rejected a promising career as a professional singer--he is a Gilbert and Sullivan fan--to pursue science. "They are many very good people who deserve such awards and still don't have them."
The Nobel presentation will mark the first time Reines has celebrated his extraordinary achievement.
"I really haven't done anything special yet," Reines said. "I think, though, as time goes on I will begin to appreciate, to realize, what it means."
Both professors labored this week to prepare speeches about their scientific paths leading to the Nobel Prize. The remarks, which are limited to 45 minutes, will be published in scientific journals and saved in Nobel archives next year.
"Deciding what fraction of research to talk about is practically a career in itself," said Reines, who has shuttled back and forth from his small campus office and home in writing the historic paper.
For Rowland, more comfortable as a researcher than as an orator, particularly at a function where tuxedos are mandatory for men, the occasion is cause for some butterflies.
"One is a little bit nervous," Rowland said. "But then again it's on a subject I know a little something about."