Shull wins physics Nobel for work done 40 years ago
By Daniel C. Stevenson
Although 1994 will be the date recorded for Professor Emeritus of Physics Clifford G. Shull's Nobel Prize, the records probably won't record the campaign on his behalf that followed the real prize-winning effort, which took place more than 40 years ago when Shull worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Shull's most important work was done at the Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee from 1946-51. At Oak Ridge, Shull, 79, and his colleague, the late Ernest Wollan, "systematically investigated the fundamental principles of elastic neutron scattering, thus providing the groundwork for this type of research," said Robert J. Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science.
Members of the physics community have been lobbying the Nobel committee for 10 years to award the prize to Shull. The effort succeeded last year because Birgeneau and Institute Professor Jerome I. Friedman, a 1990 winner in physics, were able to convince international leaders in physics to recognize Shull and Bertram N. Brockhouse of McMaster University as the "real pioneers," Birgeneau said.
Shull, 79, and Brockhouse shared the $930,000 prize for developing a new way of looking at atoms.
Shull is the fourth member of the MIT physics faculty and the 26th person affiliated with MIT to win a Nobel.
"It is very exciting to be honored in this fashion," Shull said at a press conference on Oct. 12, the day he learned of the award. "It's all the more exciting" that it happened over 40 years after the work was done, he said.
Where and what atoms are
Shull received the prize for the development of neutron scattering techniques to analyze condensed matter. The techniques are "tools for learning things about materials," Shull said. Using these techniques, scientists can find "very basic information that determines the physical properties of a material."
"In simple terms, Clifford G. Shull has helped answer the question of where atoms are, and Bertram N. Brockhouse the question of what atoms do," the Nobel citation read.
The award was "a very, very well deserved prize," said Professor of Physics Ernst J. Moniz, who is also head of the department.
"Neutron scattering has proven to be the most important single technique for elucidating the structure and dynamics of solids and fluids," Birgeneau said. "Professors Shull and Brockhouse stand out as having made singular contributions which provide the essential foundations of the fields."
Neutron scattering provided new information not available from the earlier technique of X-ray diffraction, Shull said. Neutron scattering is particularly applicable to hydrogen atoms and has been used to advance research in many fields, including polymers and superconductivity, he said.
Shull is quiet, precise
As a researcher, Shull was "a quiet sort of guy," said Anthony Nunes PhD '69, a former graduate student of Shull's. He was also "interested and proud of precision and being precise in every detail," Nunes said.
Shull joins Friedman, Professor of Physics Henry W. Kendall, and Professor of Physics Samuel C. C. Ting as MIT physics Nobel laureates. Including Shull, 15 present or former faculty members have received Nobel prizes. One staff member and 11 alumni have also won Nobel prizes.
Shull received a bachelor's of science degree in 1937 from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). He received a PhD in 1941 from New York University.
From 1941-46, Shull worked as a research physicist with the Texas Co. in Beacon, N.Y. Shull moved to Oak Ridge in 1946, and came to MIT as a full professor in 1955. He retired in 1986.
Shull and his wife of 56 years, Martha-Nuel Summer, live in Lexington.