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NSF Press Release


NSF PR 02-84 - October 15, 2002

Media contact:

 Roberta Hotinski

 (703) 292-8070

Five NSF Researchers Win 2002 Nobel Prizes

Five of this year's eight Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry, and Economics have received NSF funding during their careers. Three are current awardees. This year's awards bring to 123 the number of Nobel laureates funded by the National Science Foundation - 41 in physics, 33 in chemistry, 22 in physiology and medicine, and 27 in economics.


Raymond Davis, Jr., of Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Pennsylvania was honored for his detection of solar neutrinos. Before Davis' early work in the 1960s, scientists had theorized that the fusion reactions in the sun should produce massless particles called neutrinos. At present it is believed there are three types of neutrinos.

According to colleague John Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study, Davis "risked his career" by building a 100,000-gallon tank almost 5,000 feet underground in a mine in South Dakota with the hope of catching only 17 solar neutrinos per month. The number of neutrinos his experiment detected was significantly less than predicted. This result played a major role in development of the theory that neutrinos change from one type to another and that at least one type actually does have mass.

Since 1985 Davis' work at the University of Pennsylvania and the operation of the Homestake neutrino detector have been supported by the National Science Foundation.

In 2001, Davis was also awarded the National Medal of Science administered by the National Science Foundation.

Riccardo Giacconi, of Associated Universities, Inc., received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking work in X-ray astronomy. Because the Earth's atmosphere absorbs cosmic X-rays, studying them required finding ways to launch X-ray detectors to heights of 20 to 50 miles in the atmosphere. Giacconi's work in the 1960s developing rocket-based X-ray detectors was instrumental in tackling this problem. His early experiments detected the first X-ray sources outside of our solar system, the cosmic background radiation of X-rays and a pair of stars called Scorpius X-1 that unexpectedly emitted more X-rays than visible light. Later experiments with satellite-based X-ray telescopes probed other high-energy sources like supernovae, quasars, and black holes and have provided insight into so-called "dark matter" in the universe.

Giacconi currently serves as President of Associated Universities, Inc., which operates NSF's National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). NRAO operates some of the most advanced radio telescopes in the world, including the Very Large Array, the Very Long Baseline Array, and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.

Davis and Giacconi share this year's Nobel Prize in Physics with Masatoshi Koshiba of the University of Tokyo.


John B. Fenn of the Virginia Commonwealth University was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work developing mass-spectrometric analysis tools that allow scientists to "weigh" and identify large biological molecules. Conventional mass spectrometry techniques vaporize substances to identify individual molecules, but proteins are too fragile to survive such harsh methods. Fenn solved this problem by developing a technique to spray water droplets containing proteins into the mass spectrometer. As the water evaporates, the "stark-naked" protein molecules that are left behind can be analyzed. The technique now allows researchers to identify proteins rapidly and analyze hundreds of potential drugs and biological samples per day.

Fenn has received 13 research awards from the National Science Foundation since 1975, including funding for his prize-winning work on "electrospray ionization."

Fenn shares the chemistry prize with Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corp. in Kyoto Japan and with Kurt Wüthrich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zürich, Switzerland and The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, USA.


This year's Nobel Prize in economics was shared by two NSF-sponsored researchers whose work has transformed economic theory by providing more realistic foundations for economic research.

Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, the first psychologist to receive the prize in economics, was recognized for his ground-breaking work in behavioral economics. While traditional economic models treated consumers as purely rational decision-makers, Kahneman's experiments have shown that people's decisions are often biased and based on rules of thumb. By bringing psychological insights into economic research, Daniel Kahneman has helped explain consumer motivations and influenced fields as diverse as advertising, the stock market and medical decision-making.

Kahneman's work is currently funded by NSF's Decision, Risk and Management Sciences Program at NSF.

Vernon L. Smith of George Mason University was honored for founding the field experimental economics. While at Purdue University in the 1960s and '70s, Smith pioneered the use of controlled laboratory experiments to test predictions from economic theory. He was also the first to use controlled experiments as "wind tunnels" where the designs of different economic institutions could be tested before being implemented in real life. Smith's work has been used in designing markets for trading pollution rights, auctioning the broadband communication spectrum, deregulating electricity utilities, matching law clerks and medical residents with judges and hospitals and allocating landing slots at airports. His research influences scientists and policy makers alike.

NSF has supported Vernon Smith's work since it's very beginnings and continues to fund his laboratories and students to the present day. Smith also served on NSF's Economics Advisory Panel in the late 1960s and was one of the first speakers in a Distinguished Lecture Series sponsored by the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.



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