If you were to write the life story of a Nobel laureate, you might be forgiven for wanting to make the early morning call and its immediate aftermath the zenith of the story’s arc, followed by little more than a tuxedo, a speech presented before Swedish royalty, and several bottles of champagne.
You’d be wrong, but you’d be forgiven.
For the vast majority of the 34 Caltech faculty and alumni who have together won 35 Nobels—Linus Pauling (PhD ’25) being the Institute’s dual laureate, with a 1954 prize in chemistry and a 1962 peace prize—the award is just the beginning, an avenue-opening, support-generating, idea-spawning opportunity for a second, and sometimes a third or fourth, act. Caltech’s Nobelists have picked up prizes only to switch fields, revisit dead-end questions, or dig deeper into the work that garnered them the award in the first place. They’ve gone birdwatching, fought for recognition of the dangers of radiation to the human body, worked to revamp education, and been named president of the California Institute of Technology.
In other words, they’ve taken the Nobel Prize, and the opportunities and possibilities it affords, and made the very most of them. Here is just a taste of where Caltech’s Nobel laureates have gone, what they’ve done, and how they’ve impacted our world. —Lori Oliwenstein
Robert A. Millikan (1868–1953)
Nobel Prize in Physics in 1923 “for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect”
Two years prior to winning the Nobel Prize, Millikan (pictured above) became the director of the Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics and the inaugural chairman of the Executive Council of Caltech, meaning he was effectively the school’s first president. He served in this position until his retirement in 1945. Millikan also coined the term cosmic ray when, after receiving the Nobel, he focused his research at Caltech on radiation from outer space.
“Millikan was doing all these wonderful things with cosmic rays, and we all measured the charge on the electron in the laboratory, so his name was known to every interested student,” recalled William A. Fowler (PhD ’36), in a 1994 oral history about why he came to Caltech. Fowler himself won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983.
Carl D. Anderson (1905–1991; BS ’27, PhD ’30)
Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936 “for his discovery of the positron”
Anderson studied under Robert A. Millikan and spent his entire academic and research career at Caltech. In the same year that he won a Nobel at the age of 31 for the discovery of the positron, Anderson and a graduate student discovered a subatomic particle similar to the electron called the muon. He then went on to conduct research in rocketry.
Anderson described the financial impact of the prize in a 1979 oral history: “I happened to get it when I was young—I was an assistant professor, I think. I, of course, didn’t have much money, and I had a mother to support, who was not well and had to make several trips to the hospital.
. . . So it was a great help to me financially. Incidentally, I didn’t have enough money to get to Stockholm. So Millikan loaned me $500 for a one-way ticket, which I paid back when I came back from Stockholm.”
Edwin M. McMillan (1907–1991; BS ’28, MS ’29)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951 (with Glenn T. Seaborg) “for their discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements”
In 1954, McMillan was appointed associate director of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory and became director in 1958, a position he held until his retirement in 1973. During that time, he also served in several other leadership positions, including as the chairman of the National Academy of Sciences from 1968 to 1971. After retiring, McMillan spent a year working on an experiment at CERN to measure the magnetic moment of the muon.
As for how this work would impact the world, Einar Löfstedt, Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, summed it up in an address to McMillan and Seaborg at the 1951 Nobel banquet: “You have succeeded in augmenting the well-known periodical system with no less than six new elements. The result is, even for the layman, imposing in itself; in addition, among the many new kinds of atoms you have produced, are those which can be used for generating atomic energy—let it be noted, not merely for military, but also for peaceful ends. This is a vast perspective for future development which opens up before the imagination.”
Richard Feynman (1918–1988)
Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 (with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger) “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”
In January 2016, Caltech held an event celebrating the legacy of Richard Feynman, which included a long and revered teaching career both at the Institute and through a series of lectures aimed at laypeople interested in physics.
In a blog tribute titled “The Best Teacher I Never Had” and written for the event, Bill Gates remembers how he stumbled upon Feynman’s lectures.
“A friend and I were planning a trip together and wanted to mix a little learning in with our relaxation. We looked at a local university’s film collection, saw that they had one of his lectures on physics, and checked it out. We loved it so much that we ended up watching it twice. Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.
“In that sense, Feynman has a lot in common with all the amazing teachers I’ve met in schools across the country. You walk into their classroom and immediately feel the energy—the way they engage their students—and their passion for whatever subject they’re teaching.”
Max Delbruck (1906–1981)
Delbruck recalled the experience of winning a Nobel in a 1978 oral history.
“It’s not like if you are a writer, let us say, and you have struggled for 30 years to establish a name for yourself, and all of a sudden you get this bonanza, all this recognition. For many scientists that is not so. I mean by the time they get the Nobel Prize they have long since become full professors, they have all the grants, they have got everything they want. It doesn’t mean anything except that they now get a lot of solicitations to contribute to that, and a lot of solicitations to put their name onto this, and it’s a lot of minor nuisances and minor ego trips involved with it.”
After receiving the prize, Delbruck returned to Caltech—where he had had a lab since 1947—and continued his research until his death in 1981.
David Baltimore (1938–)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 (with Renato Dulbecco and Howard Martin Temin) “for their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell”
Baltimore, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, and President Emeritus of Caltech, was interviewed recently about his life and work after the prize.
“When you win the Nobel Prize, you become much more visible as a member of the scientific community. Visible to the press, visible to your colleagues, visible to students. Today, and ever since, when I meet a student, I know that they’re looking at me and saying, ‘That’s a Nobel Prize winner.’ And it actually makes normal communication more difficult because they think I come from some other planet.
“I had to accept the medal of speaking for the scientific community and have spent now basically almost all of my career as a sort of visible member of the scientific community, conscious of a responsibility and an opportunity.
“I’ve been involved in some of the biggest changes in the nature of biology, the way we do it, and the controversies that have been associated with that. Probably the biggest one was the recombinant DNA controversy in 1975, partly as a result of my work. We suddenly realized that there was a new capability, the capability to cut and paste DNA and therefore to move genes from one organism to another, to modify genes, to capture genes, to use them in biotechnology, and that was a monumental new way of looking at biological experimentation and the capabilities of our profession. But it also raised the issue of whether we were going to create some kind of monster, some kind of problem, disease-causing organisms. And so the world got pretty worried about that.
“I was part of the organization that put together the Asilomar Conference, a conference that looked at this question of danger coming from the new capabilities and put in place a procedure whereby we could slowly extend the capabilities to new organisms and new ways of doing science with safe checks along the way so that this was done carefully over a decade. And I think that gave the general public a sense that we were being responsible as scientists.
“Inevitably the biggest impact that people will have seen from my career is the discovery of the reverse transcriptase because that won the Nobel Prize and stood out. I think that in all of the areas where I’ve worked, there are personal satisfactions which are as great as that— the success of my students.”
Renato Dulbecco (1914–2012)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 (with David Baltimore and Howard M. Temin) “for their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell”
In August 2005, Dulbecco added an addendum to the biography he wrote for the Nobel Prize website, reflecting on his life after the award.
“After I received the Nobel Prize my research interest shifted to the study of naturally occurring cancers. I concentrated on a model system, mammary cancers induced in rats, and I spent some time learning how to work with them. . . . Using monoclonal antibodies against our cells we could identify several different types of cells, and proposed a role for them in the development of the gland.
“During this work I became aware of the major difficulty in trying to identify cell types and their roles in both development and carcinogenesis. It became obvious to me that some major effort had to be made to gain knowledge of the genes active in cells; the determination of the genes present in a given species would be the starting point. I thus suggested the starting of a genome project in two lectures I gave in 1985 and 1986. These suggestions remained without consequences. Thus I wrote a paper to the same effect in Science in 1986. The paper had enormous resonance, at first mostly negative, but very soon converted into positive. In the end it helped the emergence of the genome project.”
William Fowler (1911–1995)
Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 “for his theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe.” He split the prize with Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, who received the award “for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.”
In 1984, just a year after receiving the Nobel Prize, Fowler was interviewed for an oral history and talked about his then-ongoing projects.
“So the current situation is that a really very elegant theory, which has had an incredible number of successes, predicts that the current density of the universe on average is five times 10-30 grams per centimeter cubed, whereas our work on the production of the light isotopes in the Big Bang gives a baryon density—that’s ordinary matter—of only five times l0-31. So there’s a deficiency, ninety percent, and one of the fashionable suggestions for what makes up the deficiency is massive neutrinos. By ‘massive,’ I mean something of the order of 1/100,000 of the mass of the electron.
“That’s the problem that—when I’m able to do so—I’m mainly working on. If neutrinos are massive, that can also explain the solar neutrino problem, because if neutrinos are to oscillate or transform from one form to the other, which would explain the solar neutrino problem, they have to have a mass and they have to have slightly different masses. And Felix Boehm, by looking for oscillations on a terrestrial scale—a few meters—has shown that the mass differences have to be very small; but the differences could be incredibly smaller and still give oscillations in the great distance between the sun and the earth.”
Rudolph A, Marcus (1923–)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1992 “for his contributions to the theory of electron transfer reactions in chemical systems”
Marcus, the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry, discussed his post-Nobel experience in a recent interview.
“Life certainly became busier. I tried and did maintain the research program at the same rate as before in terms of number of people that were with me and in terms of doing things on my own. All along, I continued to do some thinking on my own; I just enjoy playing with ideas involving theory and trying to understand some experiments.
“In addition to having what I had before, then there were all these invitations that really arose primarily because of the Nobel Prize.
“But it meant for a far busier life, and doing new activities that took a lot of time made doing research on one’s own a little more difficult.
“There are various unanswered problems in fields that I’ve been involved with, including some that my group and I are working on currently, so I am excited to find the answers to those problems. For example, the field of ‘single molecule’ experiments has provided new challenges. In one study of a biological molecular motor, we have applied theories about how chemical and mechanical aspects within the system might work to data from single molecule experiments to build a more detailed model of the motors. To learn more, we are applying the same method to another type of single molecule experimental results on the same system.”
“The common theme is seeing something which is a puzzle and trying to find an answer to it. . . . It goes back to doing puzzles as a child, actually.”
Ahmed H. Zewail (1946–)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 “for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy”
Zewail is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at Caltech. In January 2006 he added an addendum to the biography he wrote for the Nobel Prize website, reflecting on his life after the award.
“After the awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1999, I continued to serve as a faculty member at Caltech . . . and as the Director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology and the NSF Laboratory for Molecular Sciences. Current research is devoted to dynamical chemistry and biology, with a focus on the physics of elementary processes in complex systems. A major research frontier is the new development of ‘4D ultrafast diffraction and microscopy,’ making possible the imaging of transient structures in space and time with atomicscale resolution.
“I have also devoted some time to giving public lectures in order to enhance awareness of the value of knowledge gained from fundamental research, and helping the population of developing countries through the promotion of science and technology for the betterment of society. Because of the unique East-West cultures that I represent, I wrote a book Voyage Through Time—Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize hoping to share the experience, especially with young people, and to remind them that it is possible! This book is in 12 editions and languages, so far.”
Robert H. Grubbs (1942–)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005 (with Yves Chauvin and Richard R. Schrock) “for the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis”
Grubbs, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry, talked about life after the Nobel in a recent interview.
“I really liked doing what I was doing before [the prize], so I’ve mostly continued doing that. I think my wife had the best statement on it. She said, ‘We now drink better wine and we dance more.’
“I’m getting old, so I’m going to have fun now. Part of what we’re doing is making better catalysts. . . . We’re also trying to define and find new transformations that use catalysts to convert a molecule, one into another one.
“There’s a new Hepatitis C treatment, and one of the molecules that is involved in that new treatment, which finally cures Hepatitis C, is a molecule made using our chemistry.
“And then another whole area which I’ve been working on for a long time, which is sort of my hobby now, is developing materials for biomedical applications.
“We probably have 10 different projects going now that are developing materials for really interesting [medical] applications. . . . It’s not biology; it’s what I call plumbing, and we’re having a good time developing these materials.
“The only thing going forward is that I hope we can have the opportunity to keep going for quite a while and these wonderful students keep showing up, and postdocs. I’d like to have a chance to do a few more things.”
Eric Betzig (1960–, BS ’83)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 (with Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner) “for the development of super resolved fluorescence microscopy”
Betzig, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, commented on the effects a Nobel Prize will likely have on his life in a biography written for the Nobel website.
“Being fundamentally a pessimist, I still have two fears. One is that the distractions from the Nobel will disrupt our research model and hamper our productivity, as it has already begun to do. The other is that I feel we’ve been too successful.
“I think it’s my obligation, given the resources at Janelia and the prestige and security of the Nobel, to throw the dice again, and do crazy, risky stuff. Harald [Hess] and I are working together again with our respective groups in this direction. Only time will tell if anything comes of it, which is just the way I like it.”
Header image of Robert H. Millikan courtesy of the Caltech Archives