National Nuclear Security Administration

100+ Nobel Prizes demonstrate nuclear research benefits mankind

December 8, 2016

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When Alfred Nobel signed his last will in November 1895, he made plans to divide his fortune among five prizes for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” From the discovery of the atomic nucleus in 1911 to today’s breakthroughs in high-energy physics at the National Ignition Facility, nuclear science has had profound and beneficial effects on fields of study across the global spectrum. Since the inception of the Nobel Prize, more than 110 recipient research and development accomplishments have been associated with the Department of Energy, NNSA, or their predecessor organizations.

The first U.S. atomic research was based at universities — Columbia University, the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1925, University of Chicago professor James Franck was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in the discovery of the laws governing the impact of an electron upon an atom. In 1927, another University of Chicago professor, Arthur Compton won the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that an X-ray or gamma ray photon decreases in energy when it interacts with matter. Harold Urey was a Columbia scientist whose discovery of deuterium helped him win the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1934. Urey, Compton, and Franck later became leaders of Manhattan Project research after World War II.

When Enrico Fermi — a 1938 Nobelist — produced the first controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942, U.S. support for atomic research took off. The Manhattan Project, an extraordinary mission accomplished in three years in almost complete secrecy, established massive research and production facilities during World War II to develop the atomic bomb. After the war, they were handed over to the newly established U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor to DOE and NNSA.

Tsung-Dao Lee. The U.S. nuclear complex also has borne some of the youngest Nobel Prize winners. Carl D. Anderson, a physics postdoctoral student at the California Institute of Technology, was 31 when he discovered the positron, winning the 1936 Nobel Prize in physics. Tsung-Dao Lee was 31 when he won the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics for an investigation leading to important discoveries in elementary particles. After enrolling in the University of Chicago at age 15, James Watson was 34 when he won the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Berkeley Lab founder and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory namesake Ernest Orlando Lawrence won the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for the cyclotron — an invention he designed at the age of 28.

NNSA and DOE continue to push scientific boundaries in a way that honors this great scientific legacy and enhances national security.

Read about all the Nobel Prizes awarded to affiliates of the Department of Energy and its predecessor organizations.