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Friday November 17, 2000

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UA researcher nabs highest science award

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By Mindy Jones

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Great Depression led physicist to his field

An 87-year old physicist repeatedly presses "enter" on his computer keyboard, trying to read an attachment sent to him by e-mail.

The 1955 Nobel Peace Prize winner says he doesn't know much about computers because they came "a little late in his life."

Willis Lamb, a former University of Arizona professor and current researcher for UA's Arizona Research Laboratory, may not know much about e-mail, but his research in quantum mechanics has earned him this year's National Medal of Science.

The award will be given in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 1. Lamb will be honored in the physics category for his study of the fine structure of the hydrogen atom.

Lamb, a California native, said he became interested in physics during the Great Depression when he was looking for a profession that would earn him a living.

He initially tried chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, where he attended undergraduate and graduate school for a tuition fee of $20 a year.

He later "switched to the other side of the sidewalk" and entered the world of physics.

During the next 60 years, Lamb taught at several universities - such as Stanford, Columbia, Oxford, and Yale - before moving to Tucson at a student's recommendation.

After a decade of teaching with "one foot in physics and the other in chemistry," Lamb was appointed to do research for the Arizona Research Laboratory.

It is one of the only parts of the university that spans over many departments, Lamb added.

James Wyant, director of the optical sciences center, where Lamb conducts most of his research, said the department is extremely fortunate to have Lamb on its staff.

"We are all very proud of the pioneering work he has done through the years," Wyant said. "It certainly adds prestige to our department, which is the best in the nation."

Although Lamb has been active in the field of science, with appointments in the National Academy of Sciences and a recent approval for publication in the American Physical Society and the American Association for Physics Teachers' journals, Lamb had never heard of the award before.

"It was a pleasant experience to receive this award," he said. "But I wouldn't be suffering if it hadn't happened."

Lamb said he isn't sure that receiving this award will change anything in his daily life.

He plans to continue walking a mile to work every morning, continue his research at the UA, and check his e-mail.

"I am significantly older than most researchers here, but I don't plan on retiring for two more years," he said. "I am going to stay in Tucson though, I don't see the point in going anywhere else."