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Three-Year Streak Ends as MIT Wins No '96 Nobel Prizes

By Brett Altschul

No scientists at MIT received Nobel Prizes this year, for the first time since 1992. Since 1990, more than a total of five MIT researchers have been awarded Nobel Prizes.

The prizes awarded to MIT faculty over the last three years covered all three of the the Nobel Prize science categories: physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine. There are currently 10 Nobel laureates on the MIT faculty and one in the medical department.

President Charles M. Vest downplayed the importance of the lack of any MIT Nobel laureates this year. "We should not lose sight of the fact that Nobels are the reward, not the goal," he said. "Our job is to focus on intellectual excellence and innovation."

Vice President and Dean for Research J. David Litster PhD '65 echoed these sentiments. "We're delighted when we win a Nobel Prize, but we don't win one every year," he said.

Litster said that this year's dearth of prizes was nothing out of the ordinary. "If you look back over the years, you'll probably find that we don't win one more often than we do," he said.

"The average number of prizes per year is significantly less than one," Litster said. "The large number we've won recently isn't necessarily representative."

Dean of the School of Science Robert J. Birgeneau also characterized the number of Nobel Prizes in recent years as somewhat above normal. On average, there is about one Nobel Prize every two years, he said. "We can't expect that we'll win one every year."

"It is wonderful to be part of a university where it is news when we do not win a Nobel Prize," Vest said. "We have been very fortunate to have received five prizes during the last six years."

Vest confident of future Nobels

Vest, Litster, and Birgeneau all expressed the belief that there would probably be many more Nobel Prizes awarded to MIT scientists in coming years. "I am confident that the years ahead will bring more," Vest said.

"There are probably several people here now who will win the Nobel Prize in future years," Litster said. "This is one of the best research institutions in the world."

Birgeneau said that there are many current research projects underway at MIT that may be Nobel Prize candidates. "These projects show a great deal of potential to win Nobel Prizes," he said. "If they continue in the direction that they appear to be heading, they'll definitely be of Nobel quality."

Vest emphasized MIT's historically strong showing in the Nobel Prizes, citing the large number of MIT faculty members who have won prizes. "The work for which these recent prizes have been awarded goes as far back as the late forties," he said.

For example, the 1994 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Professor Emeritus Clifford G. Shull for work he did over 40 years ago.

This long time-lag for Nobel Prizes means that there are many MIT professors who have done significant research in the past who are major candidates for future Nobel Prizes, Birgeneau said. "The Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work done two or three or four decades ago," he said.

"I can think of a number of people on the MIT faculty who did really seminal work in the past, creating whole new fields," Birgeneau said. "Many of these people will probably win the prize in the upcoming years, but you can't know whether it'll be 1997 or 1998 or later."

Litster had high praise for this year's Nobel laureates as well. "The people who won the chemistry and physics prizes certainly deserved them," he said. "I'm familiar with their research, and they deserved the prizes. There's a lot of researchers at other institutions who deserve to win Nobel Prizes."