Two UC Irvine Scientists Win Nobel Prizes


Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry landed like a vindication Wednesday on two UC Irvine scientists whose work was long overlooked by the scientific Establishment.

Both prizes rewarded scientists who pursued unpopular ideas with patience and persistence despite the apathy and sometimes outright censure of their colleagues. "It shows that instantaneous disparagement says nothing about the vitality of scientific ideas," said Caltech science historian Daniel Kevles.

"It's about time, and I'm glad they did it on the same day," said Irvine Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening.

UC Irvine professor F. Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland, 68, won the prize in chemistry 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 umbrella--essential to life on Earth. Their prize was shared with Paul Crutzen, 62, a Dutch scientist working in Germany.

UC Irvine professor emeritus Frederick Reines, 77, was awarded the physics prize for tracking down a subatomic particle in 1955 that was so elusive it is called the "spinning nothing." Another California physicist, Martin L. Perl of Stanford, won along with Reines for finding a super-heavy electron that came as a completely unexpected addition to the particle zoo. The Nobel committee cited the physicists for discovering "two of nature's most remarkable subatomic particles."

The chemistry prize also marked the first time the Nobel committee has made such a bald political statement. Hal Moore, former dean of the physical sciences department at Irvine, said it was impossible to get inside the minds of the committee, but if they weren't trying to send a message to world governments about ozone depletion, "it's not a bad idea, because we need to take this very, very seriously."

Only recently, two California congressmen, Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), took steps to try to ease restrictions on CFCs. Radio and television commentator Rush Limbaugh has frequently dismissed fears about ozone depletion as "balderdash" and "poppycock."

However, Royal Swedish Academy member Henning Rodhe said he hoped the prize would "put to rest this debate."

Mexican-born Molina said he hopes the prize will also inspire young scientists from Third World countries. Until now, the only previous Latin American to win a science Nobel was Luis Leloir of Argentina, who won the chemistry prize in 1970.

The physics prize, although awarded for fundamental research into invisible particles, also carried a practical warning to U.S. politicians who are "turning their backs on science," according to Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, who won a Nobel in 1988.

"People always say, 'Look how many Nobel prizes U.S. physicists win,' " he said. "But that was in the good old days. They were all for work done 20 or 30 years ago."

Lederman said it is highly unlikely that the U.S. physicists will continue to bring home Nobels, because our educational system is "bankrupt" and because the United States abandoned projects such as the superconducting super-collider that would have produced forefront discoveries.

"I loved both these prizes," said Lederman, who won his Nobel for discovering another species of "the spinning nothing," or neutrino. Reines' discovery actually came first. He didn't win his prize until this year, said Haim Harari of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, noting that his results weren't "crystal clear" like Lederman's.

"We were obviously disappointed a few years ago when he [Reines] wasn't recognized," said Moore. His counterpart, Robert Peccei, UCLA dean of science and arts, concurred: "They sort of righted a wrong," he said. "It's a great day for Irvine."

The physics prizes, although unrelated, both were awarded for discoveries of particles in the same family; six of these so-called "leptons," or "light ones," make up half of the building blocks of nature. (The other six are quarks--the last member of that family was discovered last year.)

Although they may seem esoteric, they are behind every natural phenomenon from starlight to motor oil. "If you ask any question--why is the sky blue, why are clouds white--you get back to these fundamental building blocks," said Lederman.

Reines received an unexpected reward in 1987 when an exploding star, or supernova, rained down neutrinos in great quantities on an enormous underground detector set up by Reines and colleagues to catch neutrinos from the sun.

"It's fitting that the man who first saw a neutrino was also the first to see a neutrino coming from outer space," said Harari.

Unfortunately, the 77-year-old Reines was hospitalized with "normal diseases of old age," according to a spokeswoman, and was unavailable for comment.

Neutrinos were supposed to exist, but the other particle recognized in today's prize--Martin Perl's tau particle--was completely unexpected. "It was the best kind of discovery," said Stanley Wojcicki of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. "He caught people completely out of the blue. No one anticipated it."

In fact, says Harari, no one believed it at first--in part because they had all been looking for something else.

So great was the initial skepticism, said Harari, that the particle Perl knew was the tau was originally called only the U particle--for "unknown."

The tau plays a central role in the most fundamental of questions in physics: What is mass? And why do things have the masses they do? The tau is an electron that weighs hundreds of times more.

"It's like having two brothers who are identical in every respect, except one of them weighs a 100 pounds, and one weighs 100,000 pounds. It's one of those incredible mysteries."

Perl got the news of his award in a wake-up call from an Associated Press reporter. The 68-year-old physicist said he was "astonished" but hoped the recognition would help people understand that studying invisible particles wasn't "a waste of time."

The chemistry prize went for something far more directly applicable to human affairs. In fact, Virginia physicist S. Fred Singer said he believed the Swedish Academy had deliberately "chosen to make a political statement" in giving the award to Rowland and Molina. (The third recipient, Crutzen, is also an adjunct professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.)

The Nobel committee said flatly in its announcement that the work of the three scientists had helped save humanity "from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences."

Rowland's discovery of the link between industrially produced CFCs and the depletion of the ozone layer was far from obvious. Ozone is nothing but the everyday oxygen people breathe--except with an extra oxygen atom attached. (Normal atmospheric oxygen contains two oxygen atoms; ozone has three.)

And it is that third oxygen atom that makes ozone so reactive, according to UCLA atmospheric chemist Rich Turko. Ozone in the lower atmosphere is a dangerous pollutant.

Ironically, this same ozone has an uncanny ability to absorb most of the damaging ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can cause skin cancer and damage crops.

"I remember being impressed that there was so little of it," said Molina, who was a UC Irvine graduate student working with Rowlands at the time. "Yet at the same time, it served such an important function for human life."

CFCs, meanwhile, were known as chemically inert molecules long presumed to be environmentally safe--in part because they were so stable. That is, they didn't appear to react with other molecules, and didn't break down.

In the early 1970s, Rowland started to wonder where they went. "He wondered: How are they destroyed?" Turko said. "He finally figured that they must go up to the stratosphere, where they were destroyed by ultraviolet radiation."

But when the CFCs were destroyed, that also liberated chlorine atoms, which in turn react with ozone, eventually to eat away the ozone layer.

"It was a starling discovery," said Turko, "because this chemical reaction was so efficient. He started this whole field."

That was Molina's second big surprise: "That human activities could have such a big impact on the ozone layer."


The Winners in Physics and Chemistry

Five scientists won Nobel Prizes on Thursday for physics and chemistry. In chemistry, Paul Crutzen of the Netherlands and Americans Mario Molina of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UC Irvine's F. Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland were cited for "their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone." In physics, Americans Martin L. Perl of Stanford University and Frederick Reines of UC Irvine were honored for "pioneering experimental contributions to lepton physics."


* F. Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland

* Age: 68

* Country: United States

* Institution: UC Irvine

* Fact: Has been in forefront of battle to limit use of chlorofluorocarbons.


* Mario Molina

* Age: 52

* Country: United States

* Institution: MIT

* Fact: First Mexican-born researcher to win a science Nobel Prize.


* Paul Crutzen

* Age: 62

* Country: Netherlands

* Institution: Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

* Fact: Discovered that nitrogen oxides accelerate ozone reduction.



* Martin L. Perl

* Age: 68

* Country: United States

* Institution: Stanford University

* Fact: Discovered the tau lepton, a fundamental particle of matter.


* Frederick Reines

* Age: 77

* Country: United States

* Institution: UC Irvine

* Fact: Discovered the neutrino, a nearly massless particle.

Source: Times staff and wire services

Compiled by Times researcher NONA YATES

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