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Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Nobel Prizes for Two DOE-associated Researchers

by Mary Schorn on Fri, 5 Oct, 2012

DOE R&D Accomplishments

DOE-associated researchers have contributed to the advancement of a variety of science disciplines as a result of research they have conducted. Twenty years ago, the work of two of these researchers (Georges Charpak and Rudolph Marcus) was recognized when they were awarded Nobel Prizes.

Georges Charpak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics "for his invention and development of particle detectors, in particular the multiwire proportional chamber".

"It's hard to imagine a particle physics experiment that wouldn't use one of his concepts. ... Particle physicists owe him a lot, and so does the general public, since his inventions yield applications in many other fields that use ionising radiation such as biology, radiology and nuclear medicine.

Georges Charpak ... revolutionised particle detection in 1968 ... . Before he proposed this new detector [the multiwire proportional chamber], particle physicists were thrilled by the bubble chamber, though analysing data at that time was fastidious, requiring loads of manpower. Charpak took advantage of the development of electronics to develop a new ionisation detector that combined the technology of tube detectors ... with proportional counters for energy measurement. His historical 100-square-centimetre detector was able to detect one million particle events per second when former one-square-metre proportional chambers could count only one hundred. Thanks to multiwire chambers and its daughters that equipped from then nearly all detectors, major discoveries and observation in particle physics followed, from Z and W bosons in 1983 at CERN to the top quark at Fermilab in Chicago. With Charpak's new detector particle physics entered a new era."1

'Leon Lederman, Dr. Charpak’s former boss at CERN and a winner of the Nobel physics award himself, said in an interview with NPR in 1992 that Dr. Charpak’s instrument worked by very indirect means.

“No one’s ever seen an atom, really,” Dr. Lederman said. Accordingly, he said, Dr. Charpak measured the infinitesimal electric impulses that particles leave as they race through one of his devices. Dr. Lederman compared the phenomenon to hearing a noise in the sky and looking up to see a contrail, then reasoning that an airplane had passed.'2

Dr. Lederman was the Director of Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory) from 1979 - 1989. Charpak was associated with Fermilab from 1982 - 1995 where he participated in experiments and where the wire chamber design that he developed is used by the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) for its central tracking chamber.

Rudolph A. Marcus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his contributions to the theory of electron transfer reactions in chemical systems".

"Marcus began studying electron-transfer reaction in the 1950s. In a series of papers published between 1956 and 1965, he investigated the role of surrounding solvent molecules in determining the rate of redox reactions--oxidation and reduction reactions in which the reactants exchange electrons--in solution. Marcus determined that subtle changes occur in the molecular structure of the reactants and the solvent molecules around them; these changes influence the ability of electrons to move between the molecules. He further established that the relationship between the driving force of an electron-transfer reaction and the reaction's rate is described by a parabola. Thus, as more driving force is applied to a reaction, its rate at first increases but then begins to decrease. This insight aroused considerable skepticism until it was confirmed experimentally in the 1980s."3

'[S]ome of the early definitive tests of ... Marcus’s Nobel Prize-winning theoretical work were conducted at Brookhaven ... [National Laboratory (BNL), which] had a strong experimental program on electron-transfer reactions. Beginning in 1958, Marcus held a series of formal appointments at BNL, including consultant, visiting senior chemist, and research collaborator. Marcus’s Nobel Prize-winning work is a mathematical analysis of how the overall energy in a system of interacting molecules changes and induces an electron to jump from one molecule to another. It sheds light on many complex chemical reactions, including photosynthesis, corrosion, and electrical conductivity in polymers. ...

Marcus acknowledged ... [that] “Frequent visits to the Chemistry Department of the Brookhaven National Laboratory during this period and discussions there of experiments ... served as a considerable stimulus.” ...

Marcus’s last visit to the Lab was in 1987, when he returned for his third and final three-week stay as a Haworth Distinguished Scientist.'4

The body of work of these two Nobel Laureates reflects the diversity and range of science research supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. Information about other Nobel Laureates associated with DOE and/or its predecessors is available at DOE R&D Accomplishments.

1 Edited Excerpt from Georges Charpak: A Revolution in Particle Detection
2 Edited Excerpt from Georges Charpak, Physics Nobel Winner, Dies at 86
3 Edited Excerpt from 'Rudolph Arthur Marcus', Clarkson University
4 Edited Excerpt from Nobel Prize Winners Associated with BNL

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Mary Schorn
Product Manager, DOE R&D Accomplishments