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Our laureates

Roy J. Glauber


“For his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence.”

A friendly, unassuming man and a popular teacher, Glauber updated the theory of the nature of light from its origins in the 19th century to include modern quantum principles. He helped explain how light can travel in the form of quanta (particles) as well as rays or waves. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Glauber took graduate level math courses and worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, before he graduated. He first worked at what he calls “routine” tasks, and then participated in the “calculations that were important in determining the critical mass (of explosives) and the efficiency of the explosion.” Glauber has been tenured longer than any currently active member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, having received tenure on July 1, 1956. Despite his position at the apex of discovery, Glauber continues to teach the complex science to freshmen and to the public through a well-attended course at the Harvard Extension School. Glauber shared the prize with John L. Hall of the University of Colorado and Theodor W. Hansch of the Institute for Quantum Optics in Munich, Germany.

Riccardo Giacconi


“For pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored Riccardo Giacconi with the prize because of his pioneering work with X-ray astronomy, including developing instruments to detect X-rays in space. He did much of this work while Associate Director of the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Professor of Astronomy between 1973 and 1982.

Giacconi contributed to the development of the Einstein X-ray Observatory, which was a great improvement over earlier X-ray telescopes because it provided sharper images and was stronger. He also initiatived the construction of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, known for its extraordinarily detailed images in X-rays. Giacconi shared the Nobel Prize with Raymond Davis Jr. and Masatoshi Koshiba.

Norman Ramsey


Research on separate oscillatory fields to make precise measurements of how various parts of atoms and molecules interact with each other

“When I learned,” said Ramsey about his vocation, “that you could make a living studying how nature operates, I knew that was what I wanted to do.” Ramsey’s explorations have had many applications: from his research on radar and the atomic bomb during World War II to the work which led to the invention of phenomenally accurate atomic clocks – devices that are able to operate for thousands of years without losing a second. Ramsey is Higgins Professor of Physics Emeritus.

Carlo Rubbia


Discovery and investigation of new subatomic particles and their properties

Rubbia has been the dynamic leading force in some of the most dazzling recent advances in physics, including the discovery of the sixth (or final) quark. Quarks are believed to be the fundamental constituent of which all particles are made. The flamboyant Rubbia has been characterized by fellow Harvard Nobelist Sheldon Glashow as “a wild man in the best tradition of wild men . . . emotional, ebullient, and full of life.” Rubbia is the former Director-General of CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, in Geneva.

Nicolaas Bloembergen


Discovery of laser spectroscopy, whereby atoms can be studied with higher precision

As a 26-year-old graduate student at Harvard, Bloembergen worked with Edward Purcell to develop the theory of nuclear magnetic resonance, for which Purcell was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize. Bloembergen’s subsequent work with masers and lasers have found hugely diverse practical applications, from surgical operations to boring and cutting metal to the development of fiber optics. Bloembergen is Gerhard Gade University Professor Emeritus.

Steven Weinberg


Used mathematical hypotheses to explain electromagnetism and “weak” interactions (with Sheldon L. Glashow)

In addition to his primary task – that of elucidating the unity and simplicity underlying nature’s apparent complexity – Weinberg’s avocation is history, specifically medieval and military history. His interest in the subject goes way back: his book The First Three Minutes (1977) graphically recreates the birth of the universe. Weinberg, a colleague notes, is “dedicated but not driven. He even works with the television on.” Weinberg holds the Josey Regental Chair in Science at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sheldon L. Glashow


Used mathematical hypotheses to explain electromagnetism and “weak” interactions – two of the four basic forces in nature – according to the same laws (with Steven Weinberg)

Despite the fact that Glashow and co-winner Steven Weinberg attended Bronx High School of Science and Cornell University together, and remained friends through their Harvard years, they separately developed this stunning advance toward a unified field theory. Glashow was driven by a curiosity which many more modest homeowners would understand, saying about the universe, “It is intellectually vital to know what the place in which you live is made of.” Glashow is Higgins Professor of Physics Emeritus.

John H. Van Vleck


Pioneered the application of quantum mechanics to the study of magnetism

Van Vleck, known for his love of the arts, his quietly piercing wit, and his intense loyalty to Harvard, made cutting-edge contributions to the fields of radioastronomy, microwave spectroscopy, and magnetic resonance. His application of quantum mechanics altered both physics and chemistry, deepening our understanding of atomic systems – from single molecules to crystalline solids.

Julian S. Schwinger


Contributed to the study of quantum electrodynamics

The son of a dress designer and manufacturer, Schwinger found his calling by reading scientific pulp magazines. In the ensuing years he, along with other physicists, restructured the equations of quantum mechanics to make them fully consistent with Einstein’s special relativity theory. Robert Oppenheimer noted that Schwinger’s “greatest work has been to give us a new understanding of that old and deep problem of the interaction of light and matter.”

Edward M. Purcell


Discovered the nuclear resonance method that measures magnetic fields in atomic nuclei

Purcell’s work resulted in applications ranging from the making of more accurate medical diagnoses to the mapping of our galaxy by radioastronomers. During World War II, he helped develop advanced microwave radar. Purcell was as devoted to teaching as he was to research, debunking the myth that research scientists make poor teachers. He once called the overhead projector “the greatest invention since chalk.”

Percy W. Bridgman


Investigations in changes that occur when various materials are subjected to extremely high pressure

The quintessential Harvard man, Bridgman, born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1882, received three degrees from the University and remained to teach with brilliance, intensity, and dedication. His discoveries made possible the artificial production of diamonds and other mineral forms, and his The Physics of High Pressure (1931) remains the outstanding work in the field.