Bringing UC Santa Barbara’s total number of Nobel laureates to five, UCSB Professor David J. Gross will share the highest award in scientific research with two other American scientists for their studies of the structure of matter.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Tuesday that Gross, H. David Politzer of the California Institute of Technology and Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics for their development of a theory of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) and the mathematic equations to prove its validity. The three researchers will share the $1.35 million prize at a formal ceremony to be held Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Sweden.
Gross, the current director of UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, published his findings in 1973 along with Wilczek, who was a graduate student working in Gross’s lab at Princeton University. Politzer was a graduate student at Harvard University at the time. The researchers published two papers independently, describing the interaction of subatomic particles inside an atom. Their findings have been repeatedly tested over the last 30 years.
“I remember wondering whether we could ever be proven right, whether there would ever be a day like this where even the Swedish Royal Academy would agree that it is a correct theory,” Gross said at a press conference held Tuesday in Kohn Hall.
UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang said the university is tremendously honored by and proud of Gross’ recognition.
“Professor Gross’ work on [his theory of] Quantum Chromodynamics has been well known for over three decades,” Yang said. “His revolutionary discovery in establishing the law of forces between quarks ranks him right up there with Isaac Newton and Charles Coulomb. We are extremely proud and excited by this news, and we offer Professor Gross our warmest congratulations.”
Newton devised the laws of gravity, and Charles Coulomb formulated the laws of electromagnetic interaction.
Quantum Chromodynamics theory states that some subatomic particles, known as quarks, are the building blocks of each proton and neutron found in atoms, and a strong force keeps the protons and neutrons from blasting away from each other. In Gross’, Wilczek’s and Politzer’s research, they found that as the farther the quarks move away from each other, the force of their attraction to each other becomes stronger — like a stretched spring.
The work of the three scientists enables the completion of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which describes the subatomic particles in atoms and their interaction. The discovery is widely considered an important step towards understanding everything ranging from the Big Bang theory to the physics of a quarter spinning on a tabletop because it allows a simple set of mathematic equations to be used in explaining interaction between the smallest objects in nature.
At the Tuesday press conference, UCSB physics Professor and member of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) Joe Polchinski called Gross a visionary in science.
“It’s not always the case that someone who’s a visionary in science can be a visionary in leading other scientists, but it’s true that since he’s come to the KITP he’s projected a tremendous amount of energy and vision,” he said.
While many people contributed to the discovery, the work of Gross, Politzer and Wilczek clearly unraveled the mystery of strong force between subatomic particles overnight, Polchinski said.
Gross said that the discovery was more than one man’s achievement.
“This is a community effort and it involves wonderful discoveries and inventions by literally hundreds of people and I regard this as a prize not just for us but for QCD, for the strong interaction, for the standard model and for particle physics,” he said.
Gross is the fourth professor at the university to receive a Nobel Prize in the last seven years. UCSB electrical and computer engineering Professor Herbert Kroemer and physics Professor Alan J. Heeger received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2000. In 1998 physics Professor Walter Kohn received the Nobel Prize in chemistry and J. Robert Schrieffer was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1972.
Kroemer said Tuesday that Gross’ award is a wonderful recognition of both Gross and the university.
“This contributes to the reputation of UCSB as an intellectually first-rate school in the sciences, and of course this spills into other disciplines,” he said.
Coincidentally, the university will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the KITP and the grand opening of the expanding wing of the institutes’ Kohn Hall on Thursday. A conference attracting physicists from the around the world entitled “The Future of Physics” will also be held to honor the anniversary.
“Somebody asked me, ‘How did you manage to arrange it so that you get the Nobel Prize the day before you’re having this big celebration?’ I told them it takes 31 years of preparation,” Gross said.
In a statement, UC President Richard Dynes congratulated Gross.
“Professor Gross…has been a superb researcher and teacher throughout his career,” Dynes wrote. “…The awarding of the Nobel in physics today underscores his significant contributions to the field and his achievements in the creation of new knowledge.”
— Staff Writer Kaitlin Pike contributed to this report