Physicist is posthumously honored for 'Nobel' effort Family waited 39 years for work with neutrino to be given award

October 13, 1995|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN STAFF

This week's announcement of the 1995 Nobel Prize for physics has ended a 39-year vigil for members of a Maryland family.

The widow, children and grandchildren of Catholic University physicist Clyde L. Cowan Jr. always believed that his pioneering work in the detection of subatomic particles was worthy of the Nobel Prize.

On Wednesday, the Nobel committee agreed and awarded the 1995 physics prize to University of California physicist Dr. Frederick Reines for his work with Dr. Cowan. Their research led to the 1956 detection of the long-theorized neutrino.

"My family's going ecstatic," said Barbara Maher of Reisterstown. She is Dr. Cowan's granddaughter and a Baltimore paramedic. "We've been trying to get my grandfather's research recognized for years."

Dr. Cowan died in 1974 of a heart attack at age 54. Although the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, Dr. Cowan is named with Dr. Reines in the committee's citation.

That has delighted Dr. Cowan's former wife, Betty Cowan-Reed of Rockville.

"He didn't like to boost himself too much, but he knew it was Nobel quality; everybody said that," she said. "Our family is quite excited about it."

Dr. Cowan's grandson is James Riordon, 30. He is an electrical engineer, and a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Maryland College Park.

"It's unfortunate [Dr. Cowan] passed away before he could be recognized in this way," Mr. Riordan said. "Regardless of who the prize is given to, it's acknowledgment of the work they did together." The family has sent its congratulations to Dr. Reines.

Dr. Reines will split the $1 million award with Stanford University physicist Martin L. Perl, who is being recognized separately for his discovery of the tau, another subatomic particle, in the 1970s.

Mrs. Cowan-Reed, a native of England, said she met Dr. Cowan in 1942 when he was a chemical engineer, serving in England with the U.S. Air Corps Chemical Warfare Service.

They married and returned to America after the war. Dr. Cowan pursued his doctorate in physics and in 1949 went to work in nuclear weapons research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

In 1956, Mrs. Cowan-Reed said, Dr. Cowan and Dr. Reines packed up their families and six trucks filled with equipment, and went "on a caravan across the country to the Savannah River [nuclear power] plant to prove that they could find neutrinos."

The neutrino was first theorized in the 1930s, but because it had no charge or mass it was thought to be undetectable. Dr. Reines and Dr. Cowan found evidence of the neutrinos coming from the power plant's reactor. A decade later, they were able to detect natural neutrinos originating in the sun and stars.

Their work opened up the field of particle physics, and led to new ways of detecting low levels of radioactivity and using radioactive isotopes in medicine.

"He was a very, very quiet, humble man," Mrs. Cowan-Reed said. But in their own household, they talked about the prize. After Dr. Cowan died, each fall "I'd still get nervous and say, 'Oh gosh, I wonder if the neutrino will get it.' "

When word finally came this week, she said, "My first reaction was, 'Why is this so late?' But I'm glad he's been recognized."

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