A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication
Image: 2011 National Medal Drell
Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation

Drell and Gates receive National Medal


Two scientists whose work has made a lasting impact on particle physics received the National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony.

At a formal White House ceremony last Friday, SLAC Deputy Director Emeritus Sidney Drell and Director of the University of Maryland Center for String and Particle Theory S. James Gates Jr. received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.

Established in 1959, the National Medal of Science is the United States’ highest award in science. Presented annually, the medal recognizes researchers who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering.

“I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators,” President Obama said when he first announced the winners. “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great—and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”

An emeritus professor of theoretical physics at SLAC, Drell was recognized for his contributions to fundamental physics, for his application of science to inform national policies in security and intelligence, and for his distinguished contributions as an advisor to the United States government.

In particle physics, Drell is best known for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, which describes the interactions of matter and light, and quantum chromodynamics, which describes the behavior of quarks and gluons, two of the most fundamental constituents of matter. Working with SLAC research associate Tung-Mow Yan, Drell also formulated the Drell-Yan process, which explains what happens when a quark in one particle and an antiquark in a second particle annihilate into an electron and a positron. (Drell is pictured above with President Obama.)

Image: 2011 National Medal Gates

S. James Gates Jr. just before he received the National Medal of Science from President Obama.

Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation

Gates, a leader in modern fundamental theoretical physics, was recognized for his contributions to the mathematics of supersymmetry in particle, field and string theories. This work seeks to describe the universe with a single unifying principle, thereby coupling general relativity, which describes mid- and large-scale physical phenomena, with quantum mechanics, which describes physical phenomena at atomic and subatomic length scales.

Gates was also recognized for his extraordinary efforts to engage the public on the beauty and wonder of fundamental physics, and his success in encouraging young people to study science.

In addition to Drell and Gates, the following scientists also received the National Medal of Science:

  • Dr. Allen Bard, University of Texas at Austin, TX
  • Dr. Sallie Chisholm, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA
  • Dr. Sandra Faber, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA
  • Dr. Solomon Golomb, University of Southern California, CA
  • Dr. John Goodenough, University of Texas at Austin, TX
  • Dr. M. Frederick Hawthorne, University of Missouri, MO
  • Dr. Leroy Hood, Institute for Systems Biology, WA
  • Dr. Barry Mazur, Harvard University, MA
  • Dr. Lucy Shapiro, Stanford University School of Medicine, CA
  • Dr. Anne Treisman, Princeton University, NJ

“If there is one idea that sets this country apart, one idea that makes us different from every other nation on Earth, it’s that here in America, success does not depend on where you were born or what your last name is,” President Obama said at Friday’s ceremony. “Success depends on the ideas that you can dream up, the possibilities that you envision and the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears you’re willing to put in to make them real. … And today, it’s clearer than ever that our future as a nation depends on keeping that spirit of curiosity and innovation alive in our time. These honorees are at the forefront of that mission.”


Video of the ceremony is now available on YouTube.

The National Science Foundation, which administers the National Medal of Science, is now
accepting nominations for the 2013 award. Nominations are due on April 1, 2013.