May 26, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 19

current issue
archive / search

    Quantrell Award: James Cronin, University Professor in Ph

    James Cronin, University Professor in Physics, is no stranger to winning awards -- in 1980, he won the Nobel Prize in physics -- and yet he said he is "bowled over to be receiving this Quantrell prize."

    "I really care about teaching undergraduates -- it's both a great responsibility and a great pleasure -- and to have this recognition is just incredible. It's better than some of the more public awards I've gotten," he said.

    Cronin (S.M.'53, Ph.D.'55), who is a fellow of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has been a University faculty member since 1971.

    A pioneer in high-energy experimental physics research, Cronin said his greatest responsibility to students is to "develop a sense of the value of exploring nature experimentally."

    "There's a tendency when students take courses in classrooms for them to think that all physics is theoretical. I think it's important to get them involved in labs and in research," he said.

    For many years, Cronin has done just that. He has been involved in the undergraduate physics laboratories, and he often has undergraduates working as research assistants on his experiments. In 1986, he and a colleague in the Physics Department started the senior-thesis program, which provides students the option of completing a senior research thesis as part of their undergraduate degree in physics.

    Involving students in research projects helps them develop an appreciation for the complexities of experimental science and for the importance of basic research, Cronin said.

    "Physics is not as straightforward as one might think. Students are amazed at how difficult it is sometimes to do even the most simple experiments."

    He cites the example of a student who spent hours soldering a wire onto a sample, only to have the wire fall off when the component was dipped into liquid helium -- something the textbooks never mention, he said. But it is through such failures and subsequent successes that students develop enthusiasm for experimental physics, he added.

    Cronin's own research is currently centered on detecting very high energy photons from space. He and his colleagues built an air-shower detector array in the desert of Utah to detect the showers of particles resulting when one of these photons enters the earth's atmosphere. Even as data pour in from this effort, Cronin is organizing an international collaboration to build a new giant detector array. The new experiment will cover an area of 5,000 square kilometers -- 20,000 times larger than the detector now in use. The collaborators will meet at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for six months beginning in January 1995 to discuss the design of the giant detector array and its possible location. Potential sites include such far-flung places as Australia and Patagonia.

    No matter where his research takes him, Cronin said, teaching will always be close to his heart. "I think that education -- creating the next generation of scientists and the next group of informed young people -- is extremely important," he said. "That's what the University of Chicago is all about -- not just creating new knowledge, but transmitting it."

    -- Diana Steele