- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

Metropolitan Washington is rich with Nobel Prize winners this year, with three local academics winning the prestigious awards for economics, physics and chemistry.
Vernon L. Smith, head of the Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science at George Mason University in Arlington, will receive half of the $1.06 million Nobel Prize for groundbreaking experiments on the psychological aspects of economic decision-making. He will share the prize money with Princeton University's Daniel Kahneman.
"I found out at 9:30 this morning," Mr. Smith, 75, said in a phone interview yesterday. "They wanted to assure me it wasn't a hoax. I'd been hearing rumors that I was going to win since 1980."
John Fenn, 85, a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, was awarded the prize for chemistry yesterday.
He will share half the prize with Koichi Tanaka of Japan, with whom Mr. Fenn produced breakthroughs in the late 1980s by enhancing an analysis technique called mass spectrometry, which lets scientists rapidly identify a substance through its mass. Kurt Wuethrich of Switzerland will receive the other half of the million-dollar prize.
Riccardo Giacconi, president of a local nonprofit group that manages the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, will share the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering X-ray emissions in space and for pioneering the use of radio telescopes.
He will receive half the $1.06 million, while two other scientists Raymond Davis Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania and Masatoshi Koshiba of Japan will split the other half.
Mr. Giaconni, 71, head of District-based nonprofit Associated Universities Inc., was notified by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday. "I told my wife it's either a joke or I've won a Nobel," said the Italian-born physicist.
A pioneer in experimental economics, Mr. Smith is now in the company of James Buchan-an, another GMU economist, who won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his economic decision-making analysis.
Mr. Smith's work squares with the Reagan-era supply-side worldview, which is critical of excessive government interference in the free market.
"Our work does provide a lot of evidence that markets work very well and that people ought to leave them alone," said Mr. Smith, who described himself as neither conservative nor liberal. "Without markets, people can't specialize and satisfy all their needs."
Even when individuals don't have what economists call "perfect information," markets still function effectively, he said.
The new Nobel laureate said the economic volatility of the past couple of years has prompted him to study the interaction between management decision-making and equity market activity.
Mr. Fenn is a professor of analytical chemistry at VCU, wooed there in 1994 after a 27-year stint at Yale University by the promise of laboratory space for a mass spectrometer.
Mass spectrometry is now used worldwide in chemical laboratories to reveal what proteins a sample of fluid contains. It is also used in law enforcement to identify illegal drugs.
Mr. Fenn was jubilant to receive the award after a 67-year career that began when he graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1937 as a chemistry major.
"There's an awful lot of luck in this," he said in a phone interview. "In fact, there's a lot of luck in science."
After receiving his doctorate at Yale in 1940, he worked in private industry and in aerospace and mechanical sciences for the Navy in a program at Princeton University. He joined Yale in 1967 as a professor of applied science and chemistry, then switched to chemical engineering. He retired in 1987 but continued his research there for seven years.
VCU brought him to Richmond eight years ago, promising him more support and resources. He now works with two graduate chemistry students.
"Right now, universities have a terrible time finding graduate students," he said. "We do such a terrible job teaching chemistry to undergraduates, it's no wonder none of them want to continue on."
Mr. Giacconi, a graduate of the University of Milan and a Fulbright fellow at the University of Indiana and Princeton University, is being recognized for discovering X-ray emissions from high-energy cosmic bodies, such as stars, supernovas and black holes, as well as developing the huge, sophisticated radio telescopes that study these phenomena.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which has its headquarters in Charlottesville., operates facilities in Green Bank, W.Va.; Tuscon, Ariz.; and Socorro, N.M., where scenes for the movie "Contact" were filmed.
Before joining Associated Universities in 1999, Mr. Giacconi headed the Germany-based European Southern Observatory, with a large radio telescope array in Chile in conjunction with AUI.
In 1959, he established the American Science and Engineering group in Cambridge, Mass., where he began his pioneering work.
He and an ASE colleague invented the airport X-ray machine in two days.
"But I didn't patent it," Mr. Giacconi laments. "I did get a patent of the telescope, which made zero money."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide