That Nobel Feeling

I have always found it gratifying to observe the reaction of the scientific community when Nobel Prizes are awarded. A grand feeling of warmth, sharing, and gratitude permeates the entire scientific community much like most people's reactions to acts of extraordinary kindness or festive holidays. It is both humbling and stimulating to see work by your peers that uplifts the condition of mankind and adds dignity to your own endeavors. Such is the feeling I experienced at ORNL on the awarding of the 1994 Nobel Prize for physics to Clifford Shull and Bertram Brockhouse for their seminal contributions to neutron scattering.

Cliff Shull conducted his pioneering work in elastic neutron scattering at ORNL from 1946 to 1955 using neutrons from the Graphite Reactor. He came to ORNL to join Ernie Wollan, who had already constructed a diffractometer and started investigations to understand neutron diffraction as a probe of the atomic structure of solids. If Wollan were still alive, he would almost certainly have shared in the prize.

Wollan and Shull developed a method for using patterns of scattered neutrons to determine the arrangement of ordinary and magnetic atoms in solid samples. This research opened the door to understanding magnets at the atomic level, leading to such developments as efficient magnets for motors and magnetic storage of information.

Brockhouse also did his work at a national laboratory, the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories in Ontario, Canada. These pioneering accomplishments, like those in high-energy physics recognized by many previous Nobel Prizes, would not have been possible without national laboratories. The reason: these labs play an almost unique role in designing, constructing, and operating major facilities for science.

The Shull-Brockhouse research is noteworthy for two reasons: it spawned neutron science, and the results of neutron science have had broad impact on other fields of science as well as practical implications for mankind. By my count, no fewer than eight Nobel prizes have been awarded for work in physics, chemistry, biology, and materials science that benefited directly from neutron science since Shull did his research. These winners are Glenn Seaborg (1951); Louis Neel (1970); Paul Flory (1974); Philip Anderson, Nevill Mott, and John Van Vleck (1977); Jerome Karle (1985); Johannes Bednorz and Alex Muller (1987); Norman Ramsey (1989); and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (1991).

The contributions of neutron science to society range from medical isotopes for diagnosis and treatment, to electronic chips and magnetic recording media, to high-tech polymers and plastics. I am convinced that we scientists get a warm feeling of pride over Nobel Prizes for justifiable reasons.--Bill Appleton, ORNL Associate Director for the Advanced Neutron Source.


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