As the news swept across the broad lawns and into the modern buildings at UC Irvine Wednesday morning, jubilation blended seamlessly with relief: This time, at long last, the headlines would shout not scandal, but academic distinction.
UC Irvine could claim its first-ever Nobel Prize winner--and its second.
"This is the best day at UCI since its founding 30 years ago," said a delighted Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening, flanked by jubilant faculty members at a morning press conference.
Decades of research, tireless hours in the lab and long days away from home paid off for two UC Irvine scientists: F. Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland, a professor of chemistry, won a Nobel for his pioneering work in warning of the dangers of neglecting the Earth's ozone layer; Frederick Reines, a physicist and professor emeritus, was awarded the prize for discovering the neutrino, one of the smallest particles in the universe.
At the sprawling suburban campus, students, faculty and administrators celebrated the announcement of the double award Wednesday with champagne and undisguised glee.
Many said they hope the glow from the prestigious prizes will eclipse the damage done to the university's reputation this summer by a widely publicized scandal at its internationally known fertility clinic. Three doctors at the clinic are accused by the university of misappropriating human eggs and embryos, engaging in financial and research misconduct and insurance fraud. The three have denied any deliberate wrongdoing.
"Obviously," said Wilkening, the fertility scandal "didn't have much of an impact on the Nobel Prize committee. In the scientific world, people understand that was misbehavior on the part of a small number of people that just doesn't spread out to other parts of the campus."
Perhaps, others said, the honors will help the young university in its quest to step clear of the long shadows cast by its older, better-known sister schools, UCLA and UC Berkeley, which still have higher admission standards and several Nobel Prizes themselves.
UC President Richard C. Atkinson dispatched a congratulatory telegram Wednesday to the award-winning professors.
"There's no higher honor that can be bestowed on an individual for their pioneering research, and you richly deserve this honor for the discipline, insight and creativity that you have brought to your work in the laboratory and with your students," Atkinson said in the telegram.
The prizes also will add new luster to an academic reputation burnished less than a month ago when a national study ranked two of UC Irvine's postgraduate programs among the best in the nation. Its English and comparative literature program was ranked eighth and its French language and literature program 10th in a study by the prestigious National Research Council.
Wilkening, who launched an ambitious program last year to propel UC Irvine into the ranks of the nation's top 50 research institutions by 2000, said Wednesday's awards will speed the university's leap to the forefront of the scientific community.
"I'm going to stop talking about the top 50," Wilkening told smiling chemistry and physics faculty and students Wednesday. "We are definitely in the top 50. I'm now going to talk about being in the top 20."
The two men at the center of all the attention, meanwhile, were lauded by their colleagues, many of whom said the recognition in both cases was long overdue.
Reines, 77, was not at the university or home when the award was announced. His wife, Sylvia, gave him the news early in the day. Several colleagues said Reines has been in the hospital with an undisclosed illness that is not life-threatening.
Colleagues said his discovery of the neutrino, a nearly massless particle, set into motion a new way of looking at the universe and earned Reines a place in physics textbooks.
But they also said Reines is sometimes like a 77-year-old child, so exuberant that he has been known to stick his head out of a car window and bellow Gilbert and Sullivan tunes in the clear and pleasant voice that often was accompanied by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra years ago.
"A lot of people thought you could never find the neutrino, but [Reines] did it," exulted physics professor Jonas Schultz, a longtime colleague of Reines. "It's so richly deserved, I'm thrilled for him."
"I think Reines should have gotten it 10 years ago," said Genze Hu, a physics researcher who arrived at Irvine this year from Princeton. "But this is still great news for the physics department. I think it will compensate for some of the damage done by the fertility mess."
The awards ended a longstanding guessing game within the science building, whose students and employees had expected Rowland to receive the award years ago.
Rowland, 68, has spent his academic career sounding dire warnings--at first ignored by all but his wife--of the dangers of neglecting the Earth's fragile ozone layer. And Wednesday, as he was honored by the Nobel committee, the scientist thanked those who had believed in him and his research during those long, lonely years.
"For the past five years, we have waited in suspense to see if [Rowland] would get this," said the chemistry department's administrative assistant, Vicky O'Connor, 32, of Tustin. "It's nice that he finally got it."
O'Connor said the tall, affable professor did not conform to stereotypes of scientists.
"He's very approachable," said O'Connor. "He comes in wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and joking all the time."
In addition to more prestige, UC Irvine physics researcher Herve Carruzzo speculated the prizes will have a practical benefit as well.
"These prizes are great publicity and that is particularly good for the department in these times of possible budget cuts," said Carruzzo, 30, who recently obtained his doctorate in theoretical physics.
During a jovial, hastily arranged press conference at UC Irvine--where he was a founding chair of the chemistry department, and where he performed his earth-shaking research 20 years ago--reporters asked Rowland about the days when opponents outnumbered prizes.
First he was gracious: "We come out of the blue saying we think there's a danger associated with these chemicals whose commercial value each year was $2 billion. . . . It's not real surprising that they didn't say, 'Oh, you're right, we quit.' "
Then he was magnanimous:
"Every time you find out something you think is publishable, it means that either somebody made a mistake early, or hadn't thought about it. . . . And people who make errors don't particularly like having you call attention to it."
But then he looked at Joan, his wife of 43 years, and became emotional.
Reaching for her, his eyes growing wet and red, he managed a gruff whisper: "Let me say, also, it helps very much to have people believe in what you're doing."
When Joan Rowland walked into her husband's arms, to a thunderous ovation, the couple savored a moment of vindication and a disarmingly sweet kiss.
Times staff writers Mark Platte and J. R. Moehringer contributed to this report.