Nobel goes to emeritus faculty member, graduate alumnus

Oct. 5, 2004 8:50 a.m.

David Gross, the Thomas Jones Professor of Mathematical Physics Emeritus, and Frank Wilczek, one of his former graduate students, have been awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics for a discovery they made while working together at Princeton.

Gross and Wilczek were recognized along with David Politzer for their fundamental insights concerning the force that holds the parts of an atomic nucleus together.

Gross, who is now director of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of California-Santa Barbara, was a faculty member at Princeton for 28 years. Wilczek, who now is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1975 and was a faculty member at the University from 1974 to 1981 and a longtime member of the Institute for Advanced Study. Politzer is a faculty member at the California Institute of Technology.

The discovery for which they were honored was described in 1973 in two publications back-to-back in the journal Physical Review Letters, one by Gross and Wilczek and one by Politzer. The Nobel foundation cited the scientists for revealing basic properties of the "strong force" -- the force that binds quarks together within protons and neutrons and keeps those particles together within the nucleus of an atom. The three made the surprising discovery that the strong force becomes weaker as the particles move closer together. It becomes stronger as they move apart, like a rubber band that is stretched. However, at distances greater than the size of a nucleus, the force has no effect.

This counterintuitive aspect of the strong force allows particles in the nucleus to behave as free particles at very close distances, a phenomenon called "asymptotic freedom."

"Asymptotic freedom and its connection with the theory of strong interactions, discovered by David Gross and Frank Wilczek at Princeton and independently by David Politzer at Harvard, is one of the cornerstones of theoretical particle physics," said physicist Igor Klebanov, who now holds the Jones Professorship of Mathematical Physics.

"When he was at Princeton, David was one of the driving forces in the physics department," said Klebanov, who co-wrote several papers with Gross. "He was distinguished by remarkable energy and enthusiasm both in research and in teaching."

Gross received his undergraduate degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1962 and his Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley in 1966. He joined the Princeton faculty as assistant professor in 1969 and advanced to associate professor in 1971 and full professor in 1973. He was named the Eugene Higgins Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1986 and the Jones Professor in 1996. He transferred to emeritus status in 1997, moving to the University of California-Santa Barbara. Gross received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1987 and the Dirac Medal in 1988.

Wilczek received his bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1970 and a master's degree in mathematics from Princeton in 1972. He earned a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton three years later. Wilczek received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1982 and the Dirac Medal in 1994.

Contact: Ruth Stevens (609) 258-3601