Nobel Laureate Willis E. Lamb of UA Wins National Medal of Science

Nov. 13, 2000

President Clinton today named University of Arizona Regents' Professor Willis E. Lamb as one of 12 renowned American scientists and engineers to receive the prestigious 2000 National Medal of Science.

The National Medal of Science, established by Congress in 1959 and administered for the President by the National Science Foundation, is the nation's highest scientific honor.

Lamb, 87, is one of the first scientists awarded the prize in the 21st century. He is being cited for "his towering contributions to classical and quantum theories of laser radiation and quantum optics, and to the proper interpretation of non-relativistic quantum mechanics." The medals will be presented at an awards dinner scheduled for Dec. 1 in Washington, D.C.

Lamb, Regents' Professor of physics and optical sciences, joined the University of Arizona in 1974. He received a 1955 Nobel Prize in physics for his experimental work on the fine structure of the hydrogen atom and discovery of a phenomenon called the Lamb shift, which revolutionized the quantum theory of matter.

"I had some intimation that this (National Medal of Science) might be happening because of a clearance document that I had to fill out for the FBI," Lamb said last week. He was told that he had won the medal last week in a phone call.

Including the 12 year 2000 recipients, 386 individuals have been awarded the Medal of Science. The late polymer chemist Carl Shipp Marvel, also of the University of Arizona, won the National Medal of Science in 1986.

Thoughtful, soft-spoken and no user of superlatives, Lamb said of the top award, "It's nice."

Part of success in science is being at the right place in the right time, he added.

Born July 12, 1913, in Los Angeles, Lamb graduated from public high school in LA with an interest in mathematics, physics and chemistry. He enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley in 1930, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry (1934).

He continued at Berkeley as a graduate student in theoretical physics. His thesis research was directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer, an extraordinary teacher and theoretician who a few years later, in 1942, was appointed by President Roosevelt to head the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. Lamb was awarded his doctoral degree in 1938 for his dissertation on the electromagnetic properties of nuclear systems.

He joined the Columbia University physics faculty in 1938. From 1943 to 1951, he worked with the Columbia Radiation Laboratory. There his defense-related research focused on the problem of how to make shorter, higher frequency microwave sources for radar - and it led to his Nobel Prize-winning work.

"I was teaching a summer session course on spectroscopy at Columbia in 1945 and remember Aug. 8, the day the bombing of Hiroshima was announced. In teaching this course, I read a book that mentioned that German researchers in the 1930s had thought that hydrogen atoms would respond to three centimeter-wavelength radiation, the same radiation I worked with in the lab."

Because of the war, Lamb had no way to contact the German scientists, who had disappeared. But he knew how to make the necessary radiation, and in the summer of 1946 he conceived a difficult experiment to study the fine structure of optical radiation from hydrogen with very high resolution radio frequency resonance methods. He designed and built the apparatus with R. C. Retherford, a Columbia University graduate student.

"The apparatus I used was a combination of metal and glass. You might say the hydrogen atoms went in one end and came out the other end, and in between you did things with them involving microwaves and a magnetic field. The whole thing sat on a table maybe eight feet long."

In April 1947 - "I remember it was on a Saturday," Lamb said -- his experiment succeeded. It revealed the minute but significant shift of energy in the hydrogen atom in different states.

Two months later, Lamb was invited to present his work at a historically famous conference on Shelter Island, New York, a conference subsidized by the National Academy of Sciences to explore directions for research in the post-war era.

Prior to Lamb's discovery, physicists knew that some states of the hydrogen atom had well defined energy levels. The accepted theories predicted that certain distinct states would have precisely the same energies when the atom was activated. But physicists were puzzled when other calculations suggested that these energies might differ by tiny amounts, while the experimental evidence was unclear.

Lamb's discovery of the quantum effect that became known as the "Lamb shift" led physicists to rethink the basic concepts behind the application of quantum theory to electromagnetism. His work became one of the foundations of quantum electrodynamics, a key aspect of modern elementary particle physics.

Lamb wrote a series of remarkable papers published in the Physical Review from 1947 - 1953 that were regarded as immediate classics by all working in atomic physics, said UA physics Professor William H. Wing. Wing said that when he began graduate studies at the University of Michigan in 1962, he was handed that set of Lamb's papers as a starting point for learning modern atomic physics. Wing did post-doctoral research supervised by Lamb at Yale, was appointed to the Yale faculty and then joined Lamb in the move to Arizona in 1974.

Wing noted that in papers published as early as 1939, at age 26, Lamb predicted what more than 20 years later became known as the Mossbauer Effect (aka the Lamb-Dicke-Mossbauer Effect). Rudolph Mossbauer of Germany won the 1961 Nobel Prize in physics for his experimental discovery of ultra-sharp nuclear transitions. This principle that Lamb described theoretically also was used by physicists in their 1989 Nobel Prize-winning research on ultra-precise atomic clocks.

Lamb's published theoretical research anticipated the discovery of the maser (a device to generate coherent microwave radiation from excited atoms or molecules) and its optical counterpart, the laser. Although he did not invent these devices, which were invented by Columbia University colleagues in the 1950s, he made pioneering contributions to the theoretical understanding of these devices and the subject of quantum optics. Theodore Maiman, who had been Lamb's student at Stanford, was the first to actually construct a laser, in 1960.

Lamb continued working in the general area of atomic spectroscopy and theoretical laser physics as a member of the Stanford University faculty (1951-56) and as professor and Fellow of New College at the University of Oxford, England (1956-62). At Yale University, Lamb was Henry Ford II Professor of Physics (1962-72) and J. Willard Gibbs Professor of Physics (1972-74.)

When Lamb moved to the University of Arizona, he was reunited with several of his former students and advisees on the UA science faculty. This was not so much coincidence as an indication of Lamb's "pervasive influence in science," Marlan O. Scully noted at the time. Scully (now at Texas A & M University) and Murray Sargent III of optical sciences (and now also with Microsoft) were students of Lamb during their undergraduate days at Yale in the mid 1960s. At Arizona, the three collaborated on a series of seminal articles and a book on the workings of laser physics.

"One of the really interesting things about Willis is how his mind works," Wing said. "He'll have a glimmer of an idea, and he'll pursue it and pursue it, wherever it logically leads. And it usually leads to creative advances in a variety of fields."

Quantum mechanics has remained a theme in Lamb's career, Wing noted. "How does quantum mechanics really work? It's a mysterious subject, something that people cannot experience directly. So people make different philosophical interpretations about quantum mechanics, but the actual calculations always seem to end up with the same answer. Does this mean the underlying philosophy is irrelevant? Lamb has always worried that any particular philosophical view might be incorrect and might lead to erroneous conclusions in some new situation."

Lamb's comments published in proceedings of a 1995 workshop on quantum cryptography and computing go back to his 1960s work that re-examined the foundations of quantum mechanics, Wing said. "He's just one of those rare physicists who goes on and on, just keeps exploring throughout his career. He influenced our careers in very profound ways."

Lamb in 1939 married Ursula Schaefer, who joined the University of Arizona as a professor of history in 1974. After the death of his first wife, Lamb in 1996 married internationally known physicist Bruria Kaufman. They first met in 1941 at Columbia University, where her lecturers included Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller.

"Willis' ideas on quantum mechanics were advanced far beyond what was being taught," Kaufman said -- although he didn't know it in 1941, she added.

After earning her doctorate in physics from Columbia, Kaufman worked as a post-doctoral associate with Albert Einstein at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study. She continued her physics career in Israel and in New York. Then in 1993, at Lamb's suggestion, she joined the UA as a visiting scholar for the opportunity to use university computing facilities for her work in programming physics problems.

Lamb taught quantum mechanics courses at Columbia, Stanford, Yale and the UA. "I think I taught it pretty well, but the fact is -- and I didn't try to hide it -- there were things about it that I didn't understand," he said. "I began to understand it much better starting around 1970, and really understand it a lot better now."

Lamb's honors and awards include the 1992 Einstein Medal given by the Society for Optical and Quantum Electronics, the Guthrie Award from the Physical Society of London, election to the National Academy of Sciences, a 1999 Honorary Member of the Optical Society of America, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Oxford University, Yale University, Yeshiva University, Gustavus Adolphus College and Columbia University. He was named Regents' Professor at UA in 1990.

Lamb said he plans to retire next academic year. But don't expect him to rest on his laurels.