Berkeley’s Nobel tradition
This year’s Nobel Prize in economics marks the 18th time a Berkeley scholar has been named a Nobel Laureate
17 October 2001 |
The announcement of George Akerlof’s Nobel Prize in economics
is historic — coming as it does a year after Berkeley economist Daniel McFadden
won the prize and as the campus celebrates the 100th birthday of the late
Ernest O. Lawrence, its first Nobelist.
As Chancellor Berdahl noted at a campus press conference last week announcing
its latest laureate, Lawrence’s prize in physics in 1939 was “the first
Nobel Prize ever awarded a faculty member of a public university in America,
and today we’re celebrating the most recent Nobel Prize awarded to a faculty
member of a public university in America.”
There have been 18 Nobel winners in all at Berkeley. Here is an introduction
to these scholars and the accomplishments honored by the Nobel committee.
In 1930, at the
age of 29, Ernest O. Lawrence unlocked the gates to the world of
the atom with his invention of the cyclotron — an ingenious tool
destined to become as important to nuclear science as Galileo’s
telescope was to astronomy. Lawrence also invented a new way of
doing science. His brilliance and willingness to share his discoveries
attracted the brightest young scientists of the time to Berkeley.
His personal credo was that there was enough research for all, and
he rejoiced in the success of others as in his own.
John Northrop, Wendell Stanley
Northrop, Wendell Stanley
Two Berkeley chemists, John Howard Northrop and Wendell Stanley, made
breakthrough discoveries about the workings of the human body. Northrop
isolated a pure enzyme for the first time in history. Stanley’s great
accomplishment was isolating a virus. These discoveries paved the
way for such profound achievements as the conquest of polio and charting
the human genome.
For more than a century, scientists agreed that absolute zero, minus
459.688 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, was impossible to reach.
No one had come closer than minus 458 degrees to realizing it . But
William Giauque was undeterred. In 1933, after countless hours in
the laboratory, he reached below the minus 458 mark using a magnetic
refrigeration system he had invented. Giauque’s trailblazing work
proved one of the most basic laws of nature and led to stronger steel,
better gasoline, and more efficient processes in a score of industries.
Edwin McMillan, Glenn Seaborg
McMillan, Glenn Seaborg
A key member of Lawrence’s Rad Lab team, chemist Edwin McMillan searched
for an element heavier than uranium. In 1940, he discovered neptunium.
Later, Glenn Seaborg, a young chemist who also worked in Lawrence’s
laboratory, continued McMillan’s studies on the transuranium elements.
In 1942, Sea-borg discovered plutonium, a highly radioactive element.
Seaborg and his co-workers went on to discover eight more rare-earth
elements and a host of valuable medical isotopes, including iodine-131,
which was used to prolong his own mother’s life.
Owen Chamberlain, Emilio Segrè
Chamberlain, Emilio Segrè
In the period following World War II, the existence of the anti-proton,
the atomic particle that would prove nature’s symmetry, still eluded
scientists. In 1955, using Berkeley’s powerful new atom smasher, Owen
Chamberlain and Emilio Segrè discovered the anti-proton. This discovery
signaled a major leap in the study of matter and anti-matter.
In particle physics, as elsewhere, a picture is worth a thousand words.
During the early 1950s, physicist Donald Glaser had this in mind when
he noticed the track left by a stream of bubbles in a bottle of beer.
This serendipitous event led to the invention of the bubble chamber,
a tool second only in importance to Lawrence’s cyclotron. Glaser’s
invention allowed scientists to track the movement of atomic particles
and marked an important step in the exploration of the structure of
Chemist Melvin Calvin explored life’s processes using the carbon-14
isotope discovered in Lawrence’s cyclotron. After a long and complex
search, Calvin revealed the complete path of carbon in photosynthesis
to explain how plants convert sunlight to food. He went on to develop
a leading center for the study of cancer, the brain, solar energy,
and the origins of life by incorporating the interdisciplinary style
of Lawrence’s radiation laboratory.
Physicist Charles Townes began his research into the properties of
light after designing radar systems during World War II. Working with
his brother-in-law, Townes conceived the idea for amplifying light
into an intense beam that could penetrate the hardest materials on
earth. This led to the development of the laser, a tool that has revolutionized
industry, medicine, communications and astronomy.
The newly invented bubble chamber captured the imagination of scientist
Luis Alvarez, who recognized its great value to physics and set out
to improve its design. He substituted hydrogen for ether, which produced
a clearer track of speeding particles. This hydrogen bubble chamber
vastly increased our knowledge of the atom, and changed the course
of nuclear science.
Poet and man of letters Czeslaw Milosz became the campus’s first laureate
in a nonscientific field. Born in Lithuania in 1911, he lived in the
vortex of 20th century history. Milosz’ themes include lost homelands,
the search for identity and political repression. The Nobel committee
cited the Berkeley professor of Slavic languages and literature as
a writer who, “with uncompromising clear-sightedness, voices man’s
exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.”
In a decentralized market, self-interest guides consumers in the choices
they make. Economist Gerard Debreu’s elegant mathematical models provided
the theoretical structure to explain the law of supply and demand.
Through the work of Debreu and others, the conditions of the “invisible
hand” in the markeplace were clarified.
Yuan T. Lee
Many years after Charles Townes won a Nobel for his research laying
the groundwork for the laser, Yuan Lee took that work steps further.
Lee’s designs and experiments with molecular beam devices sent streams
of intensely packed molecules into each other at supersonic speeds.
Scientists were then able to view chemical reactions and discover
how and why they take place. This knowledge has contributed to today’s
It was the hope of economist John Harsanyi that his research could
improve social welfare and lead to world peace. In this quest, Harsanyi
expanded the application of game theory — a mathematical theory of
human behavior in competitive situations — to economic and political
conflicts such as arms control. Harsanyi’s contribution to game theory
would address the prediction of outcomes in games or circumstances
in which players lack complete information about each other or the
rules of the gae.
A deep interest in social welfare drives Daniel McFadden’s pioneering
research. McFadden ushered Berkeley’s Nobel tradition into the 21st
century when his econometric methods for studying behavioral patterns
in individual decision-making were recognized. Applications of McFadden’s
statistical tools include predicting BART’s initial ridership and
measuring the economic damage to individuals from an oil spill.
Macroeconomist George Akerlof broke with established economic theory
in illustrating how markets malfunction when buyers and sellers have
access to different information. He explored this idea in a landmark
1970 study on the role of asymmetric information in the market for
“lemon” used cars. The work has had far-reaching applications in such
diverse areas as health insurance, financial markets, employment contracts
– Development Communications prepared the original text on which these
summaries are based.