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Despite small departments, physics has enviable Nobel record

STANFORD -- In 1952, the year physicist Richard Taylor arrived at Stanford for graduate school, Felix Bloch won Stanford's first Nobel. In the ensuing years, nearly two dozen scholars with links to Stanford have earned the world's top prize for intellectual achievement, including Taylor in 1990.

Taylor says with a laugh: "Bloch would never have believed that I would be one of them."

Depending on how the count is made, Stanford's physics community can claim seven to nine Nobels. Five physics laureates are still active at the university:

  • Professor Emeritus Arthur Schawlow was honored in 1981 for his contributions to the development of the laser.
  • Burton Richter, director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), was named in 1976 for discovery of a new elementary particle, the psi.
  • Taylor, professor of physics at SLAC, was honored in 1990 for contributions to understanding quarks.
  • Martin Perl, professor of physics at SLAC, was named in 1995 for discovery of another elementary particle, the tau lepton.
  • Douglas Osheroff, professor and former chair of the department of physics, was named this year for discovering the superfluid state of helium-3.

Two more of Stanford's top physics professors were Nobel laureates. Bloch, honored in 1952 for the development of nuclear magnetic precision instruments, died in 1983. Robert Hofstadter, who died in 1990, was honored in 1961 for pioneering studies about the structure of atomic nuclei.

Two laureates were professors at Stanford when they received their Nobels, but later moved elsewhere. Willis Lamb Jr., now at the University of Arizona, was a professor of physics when he was honored in 1955 for discoveries about the fine structure of the hydrogen spectrum. Melvin Schwartz was a Stanford faculty member from 1966 to 1983 and a consulting professor in 1988 when he was honored for discovery of the muon neutrino. Currently he is at Columbia University.

According to physicist Steve Chu, this is an impressive record for a university with three relatively small physics departments (physics, applied physics and SLAC). And, says Chu, the pace of the honors is accelerating. "We have three of the last six [physics] Nobels. If you count Schwartz, we have four of the past eight. That's a better streak than the New York Yankees."

In addition, William Shockley came to Stanford in 1958, two years after earning the Nobel in physics for work done at Bell Laboratories on the discovery of the transistor. Shockley, who died in 1989, was not a professor of physics at Stanford but held the title of professor of engineering, science and applied science.

Stanford scholars also have earned six Nobel Memorial Prizes in economic sciences ­ two granted to economics faculty members and four to fellows of the Hoover Institution. There are four Stanford Nobels in chemistry, one in physiology/medicine and two peace prizes. The late Linus Pauling was honored in different years for his contributions to chemistry and to peace, and a peace prize went to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was co-founded by radiology Professor Emeritus Herbert L. Abrams.



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