Two campus scholars win prestigious National Medal of Science

05 June 2002 | Professors Marvin Cohen of physics and Gabor Somorjai of chemistry have won the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest award for lifetime achievement in scientific research.

Both also scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Berkeley alumni, the two are among 15 recipients of the award this year. The honor will be presented soon at a White House ceremony.

“Each one of these individuals has helped advance our country’s place ... as a leader in discovery, creativity and technology,” said President George W. Bush. “Their contributions have touched all of our lives and will continue to do so.”

“We are extraordinarily proud to claim these exemplary scientists as faculty members at UC Berkeley,” said Chancellor Berdahl. He described the award as “one of the highest honors that American scientists can receive, for it honors not only their lasting contribution to science, but also their great service to this nation.”

Berkeley scientists have received 25 of the medals since Congress created the award in 1959.

“This is really an award for Berkeley — the campus and the lab,” said Cohen, 67, a professor of physics, who has been a member of the faculty since 1964. “I’ve had numerous students and postdocs, and they certainly share in this award, too.”

“I’m very grateful,” said Somorjai, who came to this country at the age of 21, after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and enrolled in graduate school at Berkeley. “In 45 years, a lot has happened that was very constructive and positive, and I am absolutely delighted and honored that the country appreciated that and rewards me with this medal.

“The University of California has been very good to me, too,” he added, “and I am just very happy that I could give back by creating new science and educating new generations of scientists in the process.”

Somorjai, 67, who also joined the faculty in 1964, is considered by his peers to be the father of modern surface chemistry. He discovered many of the details of how chemical reactions occur at the surface of solid materials. These discoveries have had a major impact on many fields, including the semiconductor industry, petrochemical companies that use catalysts and, more recently, various fields of biology.

Cohen, a native of Quebec who moved to San Francisco at the age of 12, graduated from Berkeley in 1957. He is known widely for the theoretical model he developed to describe how materials are put together on the atomic level. This model is used worldwide to calculate the properties of materials ranging from metals and semiconductors to superconductors. He also has had a major impact on the semiconductor industry and the emerging field of nanoscience.

Both Cohen and Somorjai are members of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Both also are University Professors, an honor accorded to only two dozen faculty members within the ten-campus UC system.


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