Chemist Clayton wins 2004 National Medal of ScienceBy Steve Koppes
President Bush has named the University’s Robert Clayton among the 2004 recipients of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. Clayton is being cited “for his leading contributions to cosmic chemistry, from pre-solar system dust to planets, and for being an exemplary role model as a mentor, teacher and advocate for rigorous science.”
Clayton, the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry, Geophysical Sciences and the College, said of the award: “It’s a great honor to join such a distinguished list of awardees.”
Clayton pioneered the use of oxygen isotopes, chemical fingerprints found in meteorites and lunar rocks, to better understand the processes that formed the planets and asteroids early in the history of the solar system. His studies have provided surprising evidence supporting the theory that the moon was part of the Earth until a collision with another planet-sized object blasted them apart, and his work has helped identify the first lunar meteorite.
“Bob Clayton’s great achievements have given us a fascinating glimpse into the early years of our solar system. He is a wonderful University scientist and a truly fine person. I am absolutely delighted by the news of this award, which he so richly deserves,” said Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Physical Sciences Division.
Most of Clayton’s lunar research stemmed from his examination of approximately 300 samples collected during all six Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972, and those collected during the Soviet Luna 16 and 20 robotic missions. But his laboratory also has become well known as a clearinghouse for the analysis of strange meteorites.
While studying meteorites with colleagues at the Fermi Institute, Clayton discovered in 1973 that the chemistry of oxygen in the early solar system was fundamentally different from that known on Earth. This led to the recognition of the importance of photochemistry (the interaction of light and chemicals) in the formation of the planets and to a new prediction of the abundances of oxygen isotopes in the sun. NASA will test this prediction by analyzing the solar wind in its Genesis mission.
Clayton and his colleagues also identified the first lunar meteorite in 1983. And by studying Martian meteorites they showed in 1992 that Mars probably once had water on its surface or in its atmosphere. More recently, he was a member of a team that in 2000 established the Tagish Lake meteorite from Canada as perhaps the most pristine sample of the solar system ever studied.
Clayton joined the Chicago faculty in 1958 and served as director of the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute from 1998 to 2001. He officially retired in 2001, but still pursues an active research program.
Congress established the National Medal of Science in 1959. The 2004 awards bring to 13 the number of University faculty members who have received a National Medal of Science.