Clifford G. Shull
“Shull was the kind of person that made you think, ‘if everybody in the world were like this, it would be a much easier place to get along in, a much nicer place,” said Shull’s former advisee, Anthony C. Nunes ’64.
Shull “was a wonderful colleague with a wry sense of humor,” said Dean for Research J. David Litster.
Shull is perhaps best known as the co-recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in physics, along with Professor Bertram S. Brockhouse of McMaster University in Canada, for his pioneering research into thermal neutron scattering.
Shull went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1946, where he and the late Ernest Wollan developed ways to use neutrons produced by nuclear reactors to gain information about the positions of hydrogen in organic molecules. “He went to Oak Ridge immediately after the war and literally started the field of neutron diffraction,” or sending neutrons into matter, Nunes said.
Studying neutron scattering shows aspects of molecular structure, such as hydrogen bonding in a protein, that X-rays cannot show, Nunes said. “It was very fundamental work that paved the way for a number of other Nobel Prize winners in which the data was based on neutron scattering,” Nunes said.
Thermal neutron scattering is “still the most effective tool for studying excitations in condensed matter. The Nobel prize [Brockhouse and Shull] shared was richly deserved,” Litster said.
Shull a dedicated teacher
Shull came to MIT in 1955 as a full professor, and enjoyed teaching as well as doing research. “I was attracted to MIT by the prospects of teaching and training graduate research students ... The opportunity of being at MIT with its fine faculty and excellent students has certainly been most stimulating and satisfying,” Shull once wrote.
After graduating, Nunes did graduate research at MIT’s nuclear reactor, with Shull as his doctoral thesis advisor. Nunes remembers one time “when some liquid nitrogen spilled form the reactor and there was some damage to the vacuum system ... in that situation I assume most people would get very angry but [Shull] never raised his voice.”
Shull “was the ideal adviser,” Nunes said. “He would help you where you needed the help and you could discuss things with him. There was definitely a lot of give and take ... and he also shared his conversations with other colleagues with us.”
Nunes remembers a time when Shull related to his students a discussion he had with Cornell University physicist Boris W. Batterman about the interpretation of some of his experiments. “It was nice that [Shull] would mention this and discuss these things with students rather than pointing us to a paper he wrote or some such thing,” Nunes said.
Although he retired from MIT in 1986, he continued to stay involved in the MIT research community.
Shull was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. and received his SB in physics from Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, in 1937. Four years later, Shull earned the PhD from New York University.
Shull lived in Lexington, Mass. and is survived by his wife, Martha-Nuel Summer, three sons: John C. of Texas, Robert D. of Maryland, and William F. Shull of South Carolina.. He is also survived by five grandchildren.