Nobelists converge to honor Lawrence
Campus marks 100th anniversary of the birth of its first Nobel Laureate

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


Pictured at the Lawrence Hall of Science on Wednesday are, left to right: Charles Townes, Donald Glaser, Owen Chamberlain, seated, Chancellor Berdahl, behind Chamberlain, Daniel McFadden and George Akerlof.
Peg Skorpinski photo

17 October 2001 | Greatness was in the air at the Lawrence Hall of Science last Wednesday as five Berkeley Nobel laureates and other distinguished guests celebrated the man who began the university’s Nobel tradition in 1939 — Ernest O. Lawrence.

In an evening event hosted by the science museum, Nobelists Owen Chamberlain, Donald Glaser, Charles Townes, Daniel McFadden and George Akerlof — who won his award just that morning — gathered with Berkeley alumni, friends, administrators and students to honor Lawrence on what would have been his 100th birthday.

Members of the Lawrence family also attended, including his wife, Molly, nephews James and Steven and daughter, Mary Prud’homme-Lawrence.

“Dad was a restless person who spent most of his free time at the lab,” said Prud’homme-Lawrence. “I remember when I was a teenager, he’d run home, eat a quick dinner, then back to the campus he’d go.”

Though extremely dedicated to his work, she said, he also had a great sense of humor and was very social.

His legacy, said Prud’homme-Lawrence, is the trail of Nobel laureates who followed in his wake at Berkeley.

“He helped put Berkeley on the map,” she said, “by attracting such good people to the university.“

Lawrence won Berkeley’s first Nobel prize 62 years ago. Since then, 17 winners have followed, several of them colleagues or students of Lawrence.

“We all owe him a great deal. He ushered in a new, modern style of research,” said Charles Townes. “At least eight of our Nobel Prize winners were directly influenced by Lawrence’s work.”

Guests were treated to a light buffet, followed by remarks from Chancellor Berdahl and Townes and the screening of two videos — one on Berkeley’s Nobel tradition and the other tracing Lawrence’s remarkable life.

Born in 1901 in Canton, S.D., the grandson of Norwegian immigrants , Lawrence earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Dakota, his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and his doctorate from Yale University in 1925.

His talents were apparent to his colleagues and professors at Yale, who assumed he would stay on at the Ivy League school after graduating.

He shocked them all by heading, instead, to Berkeley, a then-fledgling West Coast university that offered the freedom and flexibility he desired to do his work.

His groundbreaking research in nuclear physics — capped by the development of the cyclotron — changed the course of scientific history and earned him a Nobel Prize in 1939. It was the first time a public university in America had won one.

“He helped make the university the world-renowned institution it is today,” said Berdahl. “Lawrence’s name is forever linked with science and excellence at Berkeley.”

Two national research laboratories, one in Berkeley and the other in Livermore, and the science museum in the hills above campus bear his name.

Akerlof, still saying he was in a state of shock over winning a Nobel Prize earlier that day, closed out the evening with brief remarks.

“It was a thrill to win the award, but it’s a bigger thrill to have been here at Berkeley for the last 35 years, working alongside all these great minds,” he said, acknowledging his fellow Nobelists in the audience. “It’s been wonderful every single day I’ve been here. It’s a great community.”


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