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Science: Nobelmen of 1961

3 minute read

Three professors at California universities won the Nobel prizes for physics and chemistry last week.

Half of the physics prize went to Robert Hofstadter, 46, of Stanford University, for probing deeper than any man before him into the hidden heart of matter. Born in New York and educated at City College of New York and Princeton University, Hofstadter went west to Stanford in 1950 determined to attack the great mystery of the inner structure of matter. Using a beam of high-energy electrons from Stanford’s linear accelerator as a sort of microscope, he and a team of assistants proved that protons and neutrons, which form the bulk of matter, are dense at their centers, cloudlike outside and only one forty-thousandth of a billionth of an inch in diameter. Later research taught Hofstadter that protons, which have positive charges, and neutrons, which are electrically neutral, are similar in structure. The main difference is that the negative cores of neutrons balance out the positive charge on the outside.

The other half of the physics prize went to Rudolf L. Mössbauer, 32, of West Germany, who is now working at Caltech. In 1958, while he was still a graduate student at Munich’s Institute of Technology, Mössbauer published in Zeitschrift für Physik a sensational paper reporting that gamma rays given off by certain radioactive isotopes can be used for infinitely delicate measurements. When projected toward suitable absorbers, those gamma rays can gauge extremely small motions and distances. They have even been used to register the slight change of frequency that results when they travel a few feet vertically through the earth’s gravitational field. Physicists who are passionately concerned with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (which explains the large-scale behavior of the universe on the basis of relative motion) are satisfied that the Mössbauer Effect has double-proved Einstein’s accuracy.

Winner of the chemistry prize was a jolly biochemist, Melvin Calvin, 50, of the University of California at Berkeley. Born in St. Paul and educated chiefly at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Calvin has long since earned the title: “Mr. Photosynthesis.” Shortly after World War II, he began to use radioactive tracers, particularly carbon 14, and other recently developed tools to find out what happens to carbon dioxide when it tangles with chlorophyll in a living green plant cell. Step by painful step, Calvin and his large group of helpers followed CO<SUB>2</SUB>, tagged with carbon 14, through the intricate photosynthetic processes that start when green leaves are exposed to sunlight. But the greatest insight came to Chemist Calvin one day while he was in his car waiting at a traffic light. After that, he and his group were finally able to prove that sugar, the finished product of the process, is built up in six stages, each of which adds a single carbon atom. Now, thanks to Calvin, the chemical action of chlorophyll, on which all life on earth ultimately depends, is fairly well understood, but humans cannot yet duplicate the process in the laboratory. Trying to copy this elegant chemical factory with man’s present techniques would be like trying to make a modern watch with Stone Age tools.

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