Department of Physics honors National Medal of Science winners

Marvin Cohen
Marvin Cohen, PhD’64, looks at the plaque commemorating his National Medal of Science during a Department of Physics ceremony.
Photo by
Jean Lachat
Louise Lerner
News Officer for Physical Sciences and the Institute for Molecular EngineeringUniversity Communications

The 17 faculty and alumni of UChicago’s Department of Physics who won National Medals of Science discovered the muon neutrino, disproved symmetry and described the lives of stars.

Their ranks include the queen of carbon, Mildred Dresselhaus; and the father of energy efficiency, Arthur Rosenfeld. They fostered new fields, solved some of the 20th century’s greatest scientific puzzles and literally set the standards for modern science. They built accelerators and cosmic ray detectors and predicted the behavior of electrons; but they also contributed to touch screens, radar and MRIs, advised presidents on nuclear security and helped spread energy efficiency across the U.S.

All 17 were honored earlier this month with a ceremony at the Kersten Physics Teaching Center, where Provost Daniel Diermeier and Prof. Young-Kee Kim, chair of the Department of Physics, unveiled a display along the building’s top floor highlighting each awardee.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to honor this department’s extraordinary history of scientific achievement,” said Kim. “This floor has high student traffic, so we wanted to give them a sense of history and pride, as well as encouragement—many of these great scientists were once students here on this campus, just like them.”

Two of the winners attended the ceremony: Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics; and Marvin Cohen, PhD’64, now the University Professor of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley. Parker studied magnetic fields and pioneered the concept of the solar wind; Cohen used quantum theory to predict material behavior.

The plaques honor Department of Physics faculty and alumni who won National Medals of Science.

Also present for the ceremony was Ruth Kadanoff, widow of Leo Kadanoff, whose extensive theoretical work in physics earned him the National Medal in 1999 as well as recognition by an anonymous donor for $3.5 million to create the Leo Kadanoff Center for Theoretical Physics at UChicago in 2013.

Established by Congress in 1959, the awards are the highest U.S. honor for scientists. They are given to individuals “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge” in the physical, biological, mathematical or engineering sciences.

Because each winner receives their awards in a special ceremony directly from the Presidents of the United States, instead of the usual portrait, the 17 plaques feature snapshots of each recipient shaking hands with the President. (Lyndon Johnson handed awards to three of them; Barack Obama two; Ronald Reagan five.)