Feb. 3, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 9

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    Distinguished faculty lead University’s five recipients of National Medal of Science

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    When President Clinton honors 12 researchers with the National Medal of Science next month for their “outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical or engineering sciences,” three current University faculty members, one professor emeritus and an alumna will be among the recipients. With three professors receiving the prestigious award, Chicago claims the most faculty honorees of any university in the nation.

    Chicago’s current faculty members who will receive the medal are James Cronin, a Nobel laureate and University Professor Emeritus in Physics; Leo Kadanoff, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and Mathematics; and Stuart Rice, the Frank Hixon Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry. The three will receive their medals March 14 at the White House.

    A fourth medalist, Felix Browder, now at Rutgers University, is the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Mathematics, and a fifth medalist, Lynn Margulis, received her A.B. degree in liberal arts from the University in 1957. She is a distinguished professor in geosciences at the University of Massachusetts.

    [james cronin and leo kadanoff] by jason smith“Jim Cronin, Leo Kadanoff and Stuart Rice represent the highest ideals of the University,” said President Sonnenschein. “Each is an outstandingly creative researcher who has contributed in deep and important ways to the educational enterprise here at the University and to the scientific community in the United States and throughout the world.”

    David Oxtoby, Dean of Physical Sciences, noted that all three scientists have received the University’s Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    “They exemplify the Chicago tradition in which teaching is closely coupled with leading-edge research,” Oxtoby said. “All three have served as mentors to many students and junior colleagues over the years, who now hold leading positions in science and in industry.”

    Cronin, 68, a Chicago native, was cited “for fundamental contributions to the fields of elementary particle physics and astrophysics and as a leader in creating an international effort to determine the unknown origins of very high-energy cosmic rays.”

    “It came out of the blue, which is a most wonderful way to win an award,” said Cronin, who joined the University faculty in 1971. “I’m further delighted because the citation refers not only to past work, but in particular, to the work that I’m doing now with the Pierre Auger Project. It comes at a great time.”

    Cronin co-heads the Auger Project, a $50 million international collaboration of 250 scientists in 19 nations to track down the mysterious sources of rare but extremely powerful cosmic rays that periodically bombard Earth. Once complete, the Auger Observatory will consist of two vast arrays of cosmic-ray detectors, one under construction in Argentina and another that will be built later in Utah. Each site will consist of 1,600 particle-detector stations covering 1,860 square miles. Observations are expected to begin next year.

    Cronin devoted much of his early career to particle physics. He and Princeton University’s Val Fitch, working at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1964, were the first scientists to observe the laws of nature operating differently on matter and antimatter. They received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1980 for demonstrating this bias, without which no matter would exist in the universe at all.

    Kadanoff, 63, a University faculty member since 1978, was cited “for leadership in fundamental theoretical research in statistical, solid state and nonlinear physics, which has led to numerous and important applications in engineering, urban planning, computer science, hydrodynamics, biology, applied mathematics and geophysics.”

    “I’m thrilled by the award,” Kadanoff said. “It is particularly gratifying because it is a symbol of the nation’s respect for the things that my colleagues and I do here at the University and for the importance of intellectual activities to the nation.”

    In the 1960s, Kadanoff made innovative and original contributions to the understanding of phase changes, such as the change of water from liquid to ice. In later years, working in collaboration with students, junior scientists and colleagues, he helped construct a new field of knowledge called soft condensed-matter physics, which deals with such phenomena as the flow of fluids and the behavior of granular materials. He has been especially interested in how complexity arises from simple phenomena, such as avalanches forming from the forces that are transmitted from grain to grain in sand.

    Kadanoff’s contributions have included using computer models and simplified conceptual models for better understanding the world.

    [stuart rice] by david joelRice, 68, a Chicago faculty member since 1957, was cited “for changing the very nature of modern physical chemistry through his research, teaching and writing, and for using imaginative approaches to both experiment and theory that have inspired a generation of scientists.”

    Rice has worked in virtually every area of physical chemistry, from the theory of liquids, to molecular spectroscopy, to X-ray studies of surfaces. Along the way, he has made bold theoretical predictions that met early opposition from his colleagues. These ideas were later verified in experiments conducted, in some cases, by the skeptics themselves.

    Rice said he had hoped to do the critical experiments himself but was prevented or delayed from doing so for lack of funds. “But that was a good thing, because if you discover what you have predicted, people are dubious,” he said. “They have a reason to worry about whether your interpretation of the experiment is the only one. When somebody else does the experiment, and especially when they do it to prove you were wrong, it has a certain currency.”

    Rice also has helped to shape science policy at the University and throughout the nation as Dean of Physical Sciences from 1981 to 1995 and as a member of the National Science Board from 1980 to 1986.

    [felix browder]Browder, 72, was cited “for pioneering mathematical work in the creation of nonlinear functional analysis and its applications to partial differential equations, and serving as a leader in the scientific community to broaden the range of interactions among disciplines.”

    Browder served on the Chicago faculty for 23 years, including 12 years as Chairman of Mathematics. He joined Rutgers in 1986 as that university’s first vice president for research. Now a university professor of mathematics there, he also serves as president of the 33,000-member American Mathematical Society.

    [lynn margulis]Margulis, 61, was cited “for outstanding contributions to the understanding of the development, structure, and evolution of living things and for extraordinary abilities as a teacher and communicator of science to the public.”

    Margulis is internationally known for her research on the evolution of eukaryotic cells––cells that have a nucleus. She is a leading proponent of the idea that the merger of previously independent organisms is of great importance to evolutionary change. She also has worked to support the Gaia Theory, the idea that Earth’s temperature and chemical composition are actively regulated as a consequence of the metabolism, growth, death and evolution of interacting organisms.

    The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959. The 1999 awards bring to 12 (including Browder) the number of Chicago faculty members who have received the National Medal of Science, starting in 1966 with the late Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, namesake of NASA’s orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory. Counting the 1999 recipients, 374 medals have been bestowed on leading U.S. scientists and engineers.