In 1976, all the Nobel Prizes in science are awarded to American scientists, including chemist William Lipscomb and physicists Sam Ting and Burton Richter. This story summarizes these Nobelists' award-winning discoveries, and charts the role of federal research funding that contributed to the sweep of Nobel science prizes.
Americans Win All Science Nobel Prizes in 1976: How and Why
JOHN CHANCELLOR, anchor
Our Nightly News Special this evening is titled “How To Win The Nobel Prize.” This year for the first time in the 76-year history of the Nobel Prizes, Americans won all of them. They get them tomorrow in Stockholm. A Nobel Foundation official was asked today if this happened because it’s our bicentennial year. He said, “No, it’s because no other country has committed itself so strongly to basic research.” Earl Ubell of our staff has been looking at some of the reasons why we have done so well in the science prizes, and he has also learned why we may not do as well in the future.
EARL UBELL, reporting
This Nobel Medal cost the United States several billion dollars. Money, in fact, is the main reason why this year all the winners were American. Since the end of World War II, the United States has poured more cash into academic science than any other country, and where there’s money, people and ideas soon follow. Dr. William Lipscomb of Harvard won the chemistry award for solving the chemical puzzle of boron, an element found in common borax cleaner. This model represents a boron compound magnified billions of times. The green balls are boron atoms. With x-ray machines, special photographs, and computers, Dr. Lipscomb figured out how the boron atoms are joined. That knowledge led to more complicated compounds useful in industrial machinery and in cancer treatment.
Dr. WILLIAM LIPSCOMB (Harvard University): Research is being edged toward applied things, but that was not my motivation at all. I was curious about a certain area of chemistry, and in fact, chemistry in general. I think that it takes a certain amount of self-determination to do that kind of work, and to study what you really are interested in.
UBELL: And in physics, Dr. Samuel Ting of M.I.T. discovered a tiny lump of matter in the heart of the atom. At Stanford, California, at almost the same moment, Dr. Burton Richter found the same particle. This cluster of marbles represents the heart of an atom, the nucleus. I’ve stuck them together with some rubber cement, but for more than 50 years, scientists have been trying to find out what is the real glue that keeps atoms and stars and you and me from coming apart, from exploding. The scientists do their work by smashing one atom into another. This billiard ball represents another atom, and I’m going to smash an atom. The atoms flying at 186,000 miles per second tear the heart of the atom apart. The strange particles that come out hold the secret to the universal glue of atoms and stars. Dr. Ting used an underground atomic slingshot, a half-mile around on Long Island. Dr. Richter, in California, had a two-mile long atom smasher.
Dr. BURTON RICHTER (Stanford University): I guess science is my way of finding out about the universe: how it got the way it is, how it works, how things are made.
UBELL: Ironically, now that the United States has swept all the Nobel Prizes, federal support for academic science has been dropping. In 1967, which was the peak, the federal government put in about $3 billion. Taking inflation into account, support today measures a little over $2 billion. What is worse, the federal government has been reducing its fellowship program, the support of young people, the future Nobel Prize winners. If that keeps up, some experts say, there’ll be fewer and fewer of these gold medals arriving at these shores. Earl Ubell, NBC News, New York.
Synopsis: Using a makeshift workspace, Marie Curie began, in 1897, a series of experiments that would pioneer the science of radioactivity, change the world of medicine, and increase our understanding of the structure of the atom.