UCI TAKES PRIZES : Reines' Prize Long Overdue, Peers Say : His mid-'50s discovery of elusive neutrino made him a giant in his field, most agree. With the professor emeritus in failing health, UCI colleagues toast him in absentia.


To those who know him well, Frederick Reines has the disciplined mind of a scientist and the playful enthusiasm of a preschooler.

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 Reines, 77, was so excited by life that he once stuck his head out of a car and crooned Gilbert and Sullivan in the clear and pleasant voice that often accompanied the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

Frugal with the millions in research money he earned for UC Irvine over the years, Reines demanded that not a dollar nor a minute be wasted in the laboratory. But when he assembled his team at dinner at the end of a long day, Reines would invariably stand up, recite an original limerick or poem, and ask the dozen or so others at the table to do the same.

"Fred gathered around him in Irvine a group of people that were not the standard kind of scientific researchers--set in their ways with very little push of the envelope," said Robert Svoboda, an associate physics professor at Louisiana State University. "He encouraged people to experiment and take the time they needed, but they had to produce."

From coast to coast, researchers who had crossed paths with Reines said the same two things: that he was a giant in his field and that the Nobel Prize was long overdue.

"The prize is a long time coming for Fred Reines," said Sheldon Glashow, a physics professor at Harvard University. "It's about time he was recognized."

Just a handful of basic particles make up all of matter. But perhaps the most elusive is the neutrino, the existence of which an Italian physicist postulated in 1932 but could never prove. It took until 1956 for Reines, working with Clyde Cowan, to discover the existence of the neutrino in a tank filled with water alongside a nuclear reactor at the Savannah River.

"This was a particle predicted but never seen," said Hank Sobel, one of Reines' colleagues at UCI. "It was impossible to see. It had no charge and, we think, no mass. You'd have to be ingenuous to find it. Reines and Cowan were the two guys who opened up a whole new world."

Now, nearly 40 years after that discovery, Reines, a distinguished professor emeritus, is getting his due.

On Wednesday, with champagne corks popping and congratulations filling a conference room at UCI's physical science building, faculty and graduate students gathered to honor Reines in absentia.

His wife, Sylvia, had given him the big news earlier in the day. Late Wednesday, she said, "he hasn't been feeling well" and offered no elaboration. The family said it would have no statement.

"A lot of people thought you could never find the neutrino, but he did it," said UCI physics professor Jonas Schultz, a longtime colleague. "It's so richly deserved, I'm thrilled for him."

Other colleagues described Reines as a scientist singularly devoted to his work.

"He's a very focused person," said Sobel, a UCI physics professor who began working with Reines as a doctoral student in 1962. "His whole life was physics."

With his trademark bolo tie that he's favored since his days at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, where he worked on the first atomic bomb during World War II, Reines stepped into the office every day, until recently when his health started failing.

He taught up until about a year ago, and had developed a course entitled "Rainbows and Things," which was designed to give non-science majors an appreciation of physics.

Born in Paterson, N.J., Reines graduated from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in mathematics and physical science. He got his Ph.D. in physics from New York University.

A tall, strapping man who was once a college gymnast and excelled in arm-wrestling, Reines was a group leader in the theoretical division of the Los Alamos lab and head of physics at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. In 1965, he became UCI's first dean of physical sciences.

Although the Nobel caps a long and distinguished career, Reines has also been awarded the National Medal of Science, the Franklin Medal by the Benjamin Franklin Institute Committee on Science and the Arts, the Bruno Rossi Prize by the American Astronomical Society and the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize. He was also named to the National Academy of Sciences.

In a 1985 interview with The Times, Reines struggled to explain the importance of his famous discovery.

"I don't say that the neutrino is going to be a practical thing," he said. "But it has been a time-honored pattern that science leads, and then technology comes along, and then, put together, these things make an enormous difference in how we live."

Reines and his colleagues at UCI, working with the University of Michigan, made another startling find eight years ago: the detection of a spurt of neutrinos from a supernova, or exploding star. The news stunned the astrophysics community because it strengthened long-held theories about the universe.

Using a detector at the bottom of a salt mine in Ohio, researchers spotted the supernova, the scientific equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack, or as Reines said, "It's like listening for a gnat's whisper in a hurricane."

Svoboda, who worked around the clock with Reines and many others on the project, never will forget watching his boss celebrate.

"That was the first time in my whole life I had seen him take a drink," Svoboda said. "He never, ever drinks. But he took a sip of Bailey's that day."

Times staff writer Martin Miller contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World