Yesterday, David Gross received science’s highest honor when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences named him as one of three recipients for this year’s Nobel Prize in physics.

The last three months have been a season of honors for Gross. In late June, the French Academy of Sciences awarded him the Grande Médaille d’Or, putting him in the company of Louis Pasteur, Pierre and Marie Curie, and Gustave Eiffel. On Nov. 23 in Paris, Gross will receive the Grande Médaille and on Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Sweden, he will receive the Nobel Prize. It is, though his demeanor belies the comparison, one heck of a tour for a rock star of physics.

Gross’ work has added to the legacy of Feynman, Einstein, Newton and many others. He has helped to peel the layers of mystery from nature at one of its most fundamental levels, and it is a pleasure to see him honored so appropriately.

It may seem that these awards, given primarily in recognition of Gross’ work on the strong nuclear force in the early 1970s, are late in coming. Indeed, for several years it has seemed the only suspense involving this physicist and the Nobel Prize was waiting for it to be awarded. Such prizes, however, are given neither swiftly nor lightly. What appeared to be a delay was instead science at work, checking and rechecking itself. In the last three decades, the work of Gross and his co-laureates – H. David Politzer of Caltech and Frank Wilczek of MIT – became an indispensable part of modern physics. Awards may at last recognize this achievement, but they can hardly enhance it.

Some students may feel that quantum chromodynamics is far removed from their lives, even though it explains why the smallest particles of their bodies have not scattered across the universe. At the moment, none of Gross’ discoveries seem likely to help build a bigger bomb or a smaller cell phone. One of the joys of the Nobel Prize is that it reminds us that these goals are not so important as they sometimes seem. Gross is involved in humanity’s greatest project: discovering the forces that cause the universe to function, indeed, to exist. It is work done not for the momentary profit of one man but rather for the gain of all of us and the generations still to come. Though his contributions are already immense, Gross continues to further our ability to understand the universe through his work on string theory, work which may someday lead to a unified theory of all the forces in nature.

Next to this work, Gross’s leadership at the Institute for Theoretical Physics may seem tame, but we would be remiss if we did not also thank him for it because it has helped make UCSB’s string theory program one of the strongest in the world.

Although the Nobel Prize was awarded to David Gross and not UCSB, we have had for many years been rewarded with the better prize of having him on our campus.