Two Yale alums win Nobel Prizes in sciences

Two Yale graduates were awarded Nobel Prizes this week for their contributions to physics and chemistry. Retired Yale professor John Fenn GRD ’40 won one of three Nobel Prizes in chemistry, while retired University of Pennsylvania physics professor Raymond Davis GRD ’42 was one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics.

The Nobel Prize Committee recognized Fenn for his contributions to mass spectrometry and Davis for his works on cosmic neutrinos. Both recipients earned doctorates in chemistry from Yale.

Fenn, who spent much of his career in the Yale chemical engineering and chemistry departments, shared the prize with Japanese researcher Koichi Tanaka and Swiss scientist Kurt Wuthrich.

Fenn and Tanaka worked together to improve mass spectrometry, a means of identifying proteins by weighing individual atoms and molecules. The method also allows scientists to identify proteins based on how quickly they accelerate in an electric field. The recipients’ work, which the 84-year-old Fenn did not commence until he was in his 60s, shortened the protein identification period from several weeks to a few seconds.

The Nobel Prize Committee awarded Fenn and Tanaka the prize “for their development of soft desorption ionization methods for mass spectrometric analyses of biological macromolecules,” according to the organization’s Web site.

Yale chemistry chairman Andrew Hamilton said Fenn conducted much of his prize-winning research during his 20-year tenure as a Yale professor. Fenn retired from Yale in 1987.

“Fenn’s Nobel Prize is marvelous news for the Chemistry Department and for Yale,” Hamilton said.

Davis, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, spent almost 30 years studying neutrinos — stable and uncharged atomic particles which rarely interact with matter despite their abundance.

In the past 30 years, Davis observed approximately 2,000 interactions of neutrinos and matter. The Nobel Prize Committee awarded Davis the honor “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, in particular for the detection of cosmic neutrinos,” according to the Web site.

University of Tokyo professor Masatoshi Koshiba, with whom Davis collaborated, also won a Nobel Prize for physics.

Yale physics chairman Ramamurti Shankar said he believes Davis is deserving of the award because of his dedication to one particular area of physics.

“It is a tribute to a person who was willing to invest his entire career working painstakingly to settle one major issue, instead of frittering away his energy on cracking many more minor problems,” Shankar said.

Hamilton said that Yale should be proud that two of the six chemistry and physics recipients for 2002 are associated with Yale.

“This year’s Nobel Prizes are a double celebration for the Chemistry Department and Yale,” he said. “For two of our graduates to win Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry in two days shows what a great foundation a Yale chemistry PhD is.”