Three Americans shared the 1988 Nobel physics prize today for discovering a ghostlike particle in the building blocks of matter, and three West Germans won the chemistry prize for unlocking secrets of photosynthesis, the reaction that nourishes life on earth.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the $400,000 physics prize to Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger for work on neutrinos--"ghostlike constituents of matter.”
It gave the chemistry prize to Johann Deisenhofer, Robert Huber and Hartmut Michel for unraveling the structure of the proteins that cause photosynthesis--the process by which light from the sun is converted into chemical energy that is then used as nutrition by all animals and plants.
Two of the chemistry prize winners, Huber, 51, and Michel, 40, work in different branches of the Max Planck Institute in West Germany. The institute has provided several distinguished previous Nobel Prize winners, including Albert Einstein.
Deisenhofer, 45, works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Dallas.
‘Too Happy to Think’
Reached at his home, Deisenhofer said he was “too happy to think about my situation. I was surprised, although I had heard certain rumors. I still haven’t digested the news.”
Of the physics prize winners, Lederman, 66, is director of the Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., near Chicago.
Schwartz, 55, a former professor at Columbia and Stanford universities, now runs his own computer communications company in Mountain View, Calif.
Steinberger, 67, works at the laboratories of the European nuclear research center, CERN, near Geneva.
Lederman said in a telephone interview that the trio’s work began a “cottage industry” in identifying the building blocks of matter.
‘Difficult to See’
“In 1961 we discovered a neutrino--a basic particle, a most difficult one to see, because it has no electric charge,” Lederman said. “It’s like the little fly up there on the wall.
“In the process, we started a sort of cottage industry in identifying basic particles, the quarks and so on. Now there are hot- and cold-running neutrinos all over the place.”
Co-winner Schwartz, reached at his San Francisco home, said he was “obviously surprised” and does not know what he will do with his share of the prize money.
“I haven’t thought about it. I’ll figure out some way to spend it.”
Bo Malmstrom, biochemistry professor at Gothenburg University and chairman of the chemistry prize committee, said the discoveries honored in that award are a first step toward solving the world’s energy crisis.
“The discovery is very important because photosynthesis is the most important chemical reaction on earth and a prerequisite for all higher living organisms,” he said.
‘We Will Need the Sun’
“In the long run we will need the sun if we are going to solve the world’s energy crisis. This discovery is a first step toward creating an artificial photosynthesis which would help us do that.”
The physics prize committee said the work of Lederman, Schwartz and Steinberger has removed key obstacles to further progress on research into weak forces--one of nature’s four basic forces.
Physics prize committee chairman Gosta Ekspong said their work, which originated in a flash of inspiration during a coffee break at Columbia University in New York City in the 1960s, had led to new understandings about the basic makeup of matter.
“Previously, it used to be believed that elementary particles were made up of three elements--that three shared the bed,” he said.
“But this discovery made it clear that elementary particles pair up in families of two,” he added.
Neutrinos are created by the combustion of the sun. Holding no electrical charge, they hurtle about the universe at or near the speed of light, passing through whatever is in the way. Every human is bombarded with them at a rate of several billion per second per cubic meter, day and night.