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Nobel Prize-winning Research

Brookhaven National Laboratory is home to many world-class research facilities and scientific departments which attract resident and visiting scientists in many fields. This outstanding mix of machine- and mind-power has six times produced research deemed worthy of the greatest honor in science: the Nobel Prize.

2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Roderick MacKinnon, M.D., a visiting researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory, shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work explaining how a class of proteins helps to generate nerve impulses -- the electrical activity that underlies all movement, sensation, and perhaps even thought. The work leading to the prize was done primarily at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source and the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven.

The proteins, called ion channels, are tiny pores that stud the surface of all of our cells. These channels allow the passage of potassium, calcium, sodium, and chloride molecules called ions. Rapid-fire opening and closing of these channels releases ions, moving electrical impulses from the brain in a wave to their destination in the body.

2002 Nobel Prize in Physics

Raymond Davis Jr., a chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics for detecting solar neutrinos, ghostlike particles produced in the nuclear reactions that power the sun. Davis shared the prize with Masatoshi Koshiba of Japan, and Riccardo Giacconi of the U.S.

Davis was the first scientist to detect solar neutrinos, the signature of nuclear fusion reactions occurring in the core of the sun. Devising a method to detect solar neutrinos based on the theory that the elusive particles produce radioactive argon when they interact with a chlorine nucleus, Davis constructed his first solar neutrino detector in 1961, 2,300 feet below ground in a limestone mine in Ohio. Building on this experience, he mounted a full-scale experiment 4,800 feet underground, in the Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota. In research that spanned from 1967-1985, Davis consistently found only one-third of the neutrinos that standard theories predicted. His results threw the field of astrophysics into an uproar, and, for nearly three decades, physicists tried to resolve the so-called “solar neutrino puzzle.”

Experiments in the 1990s using different detectors around the world eventually confirmed the solar neutrino discrepancy. Davis’s lower-than-expected neutrino detection rate is now accepted by the international science community as evidence that neutrinos have the ability to change from one of the three known neutrino forms into another. This characteristic, called neutrino oscillation, implies that the neutrino has mass, a property that is not included in the current standard model of elementary particles.

1988 Nobel Prize in Physics

Another Nobel Prize for Brookhaven was awarded in 1988, when a trio of researchers received the physics prize for their 1962 discovery of the muon-neutrino.

Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger (above), at the time all of Columbia University, made their discovery at the brand-new Alternating Gradient Synchrotron. At the time, only the electron-neutrino was known, and the scientists wondered if they could find more types of these ghostlike particles that pass through everything. The AGS, then the most powerful accelerator in the world, was capable of producing the beam needed.

The experiment used a beam of the AGS's energetic protons to produce a shower of pi mesons, which traveled 70 feet toward a 5,000-ton steel wall made of old battleship plates. On the way, they decayed into muons and neutrinos, but only the latter particles could pass through the wall into a neon-filled detector called a spark chamber. There, the impact of neutrinos on aluminum plates produced muon spark trails that could be detected and photographed -- proving the existence of muon-neutrinos.

1980 Nobel Prize in Physics

James W. Cronin and Val L. Fitch, both then of Princeton University, proposed using Brookhaven's AGS to verify a fundamental tenet of physics, known as CP symmetry, by showing that two different particles did not decay into the same products. They picked as their example neutral K mesons, which are routinely produced in collisions between a proton beam and a stationary metal target.

Their experiment, in 1963, set out to show that in millions of collisions, the short-lived variety of K meson always decayed into two pi mesons, while the long-lived variety never did. But to their surprise, a "suspicious-looking hump" in the data showed an unexpected result that years of subsequent experimentation and theory have been unable to explain: occasionally, the long-lived neutral K meson does decay into two pi mesons. Cronin and Fitch had found an example of CP violation.

The discovery's ramifications stretched far beyond the neutral K mesons; Cronin and Fitch had discovered a flaw in physics' central belief that the universe is symmetrical.

1976 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 1976 Nobel Prize in physics was shared by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who used Brookhaven's Alternating Gradient Synchrotron to discover a new particle and confirm the existence of the charmed quark.

Samuel C.C. Ting (right) was credited for finding what he called the "J" particle, the same particle as the "psi" found at nearly the same time at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center by a group led by Burton Richter. The particle is now known as the J/psi. Winning the Nobel Prize, they also helped confirm the existence of the charmed quark -- the J/psi is composed of a charmed quark bound to its antiquark.

1957 Nobel Prize in Physics

In 1956 T.D. Lee, of Columbia University, and C.N. Yang (at left in photo), then of Brookhaven, interpreted results of particle decay experiments at Brookhaven's Cosmotron particle accelerator and discovered that the fundamental and supposedly absolute law of parity conservation had been violated.

Their studies concerned two particles, the tau and the theta, which had the same masses, lifetimes and scattering behaviors, but which decayed differently in experiments at the Cosmotron. Because of this, the law of parity conservation required that these otherwise similar particles be considered different from one another.

Lee and Yang suggested experiments that showed that the weak interaction of radioactive decay could indeed violate parity conservation. When the experiments were later successfully completed, the puzzle of the two particles was solved -- they could be the same. Lee and Yang shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1957.

Brookhaven's Connection to Other Nobel Prizes

Whether as summer students, visiting scientists, or special guests, a large number of eventual Nobel laureates have spent time at Brookhaven Lab, contributing to Brookhaven’s vast scientific expertise and, possibly, leaving with award-winning ideas. Nine Nobel laureates are in this category at Brookhaven. More...


Did you know?

Bertram Brockhouse, who received the Nobel Prize in 1994 “for the development of neutron spectroscopy,” did not perform any actual spectroscopic work while at Brookhaven, but he still credits it as an important part of his scientific career. More...


Rudolf Marcus, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Chemistry  acknowledged BNL in a 1986 journal article saying: “Frequent visits to the Chemistry Department of the Brookhaven National Laboratory during this period and discussions there of experiments with Dick Dodson and Norman Sutin served as a considerable stimulus." More...


A Brookhaven summer student from 1957, Roald Hoffmann, went on to share the 1981 Nobel in chemistry for his theoretical work in the behavior of atoms and molecules.


The 1989 Nobel in physics was shared by Norman Ramsey, the first chairman of Brookhaven's Physics Department. Ramsey's prize was awarded for his invention of the separated oscillatory fields method for precisely measuring movements within an atom, an advance that provided the basis for the world time standard-keeping cesium atomic clock.


In 1993, Joseph Taylor (below) and Russell Hulse of Princeton University shared the Nobel Prize in physics for their 1974 discovery of the first binary pulsar. Taylor, a former Brookhaven summer student, was elected in 1987 to the Board of Trustees of Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), which managed Brookhaven for the U.S. Department of Energy from 1947 to 1997.


2004 Nobel Prize winner, physicist Frank Wilczek, was appointed a Leland J. Haworth Distinguished Scientist at BNL from September 1994 until June 1997, and continues to frequently provide advice to Brookhaven scientists on an informal basis.