Note: This is part two of a four part series.
Meet Frederick Reines, a graduate of Union Hill High School’s class of 1935 and winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1995.
“How many small cities like ours can claim the fame of having had a Nobel Prize winner come from their city and school system?” says Kathie Pontus, Union City resident and private historian. “Plus, there are the others who are giving us good reasons to be proud of our city and history.”
Scientist in the making
Reines was born on March 16, 1918 in Paterson. He died of natural causes 80 years later, in 1998.
The son of Russian immigrants and the youngest of four children, Reines and his family moved to upstate New York, where he spent much of his childhood in a patriotic small town. There, he relished lavish July 4th festivities and participated in his school’s singing group.
Reines also loved to create and build things, and his love of science began to show gradually throughout his youth.
“My first stirrings of interest in science that I remembered occurred during a moment of boredom at religious school,” Reines told Nobelprize.org in 1995. “When looking out of the window at twilight through a hand curled [to simulate a telescope], I noticed something peculiar about the light – it was the phenomenon of diffraction. That began for me a fascination with light.”
Reines’ older siblings also positively influenced his rich academic life, as they were always quite studious and went on to become doctors and lawyers.
Upon returning to New Jersey, Reines attended Horace Mann Elementary School in North Bergen before moving to Union City, and joined the Eagle Scouts Organization.
“By this time, the family had returned to New Jersey, and I was a student at Union Hill High School,” said Reines.
Rough start at Union Hill
However, Reines got off to a bit of a rocky start in his freshman year of high school. Although he seemed to excel in literary and history courses, he received average to low markings in science and math.
“In school, I was initially more attracted to literary interests and did not do as well in science studies,” said Reines. “However, by my junior and senior years in high school, this situation turned around sufficiently to point me in the direction of science.”
Reines said in interviews that he was strongly encouraged by a science teacher, who was never identified, who took an interest in him. Reines was presented with a key to the laboratory and was given permission to work whenever he wanted. His love of science took flight and during his senior year, he aced physics.
“I also served as editor-in-chief of the high school yearbook,” said Reines. “In response to the yearbook query to students about their principle ambition, my entry was ‘to be a physicist extraordinaire.’ ”
“What a great story to inspire our children of today,” said Pontus. “Not only can you be a resident of Union City and go on to win a Nobel Prize, but you shouldn’t be defeated by the failing of a subject.”
Discovery of the neutrino
Reines’ ambitions became reality throughout his illustrious career, which spanned four decades.
After graduating from Union Hill High School, Reines continued his studies in Hudson County, earning his M.E. and M.S. degrees from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. He went on to receive his Ph.D. from New York University in 1944.
Reines then became a member and later a group leader in the Theoretical Division of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory at the University of California from 1944 to 1959, where he also served as a professor and founding dean of Physical Sciences.
In the mid-1950s, Reines and his colleague, Clyde Cowan, discovered the neutrino.
The concept of the neutrino was first introduced 20 years before by Viennese physicist and Nobel Prize winner Wolfgang Pauli, but never proven. The neutrino is created by an energetic collision between nuclear particles, produced by the nuclear reactions that power stars.
According to www.bigbangband.biz, “Roughly 10 million neutrinos from the sun will pass through your body while you read this sentence. Neutrinos travel at the speed of light. By the time you have read this paragraph, the neutrinos that passed through your body will be further away than the moon.”
Reines subsequently dedicated the major part of his career to the study of the neutrinos’ properties and interactions. In 1995 he was honored, alongside Martin L. Pearl, as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics.
According to the Nobelprize.org, Reines’ award was “the ultimate recognition of an extraordinary discovery and an exceptional scientific career in pursuit of fundamental knowledge.”
Other famous Nobel Prize winners in physics include Albert Einstein in 1921 for his services to theoretical physics and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.
Reines’ research influenced the study and role of the neutrino in the context of elementary particle physics and in astrophysical processes. In fact, one of the most recent successes to come out of Reines’ studies was the discovery of neutrinos emitted from Supernova SN1987A by the Irvine-Michigan-Brookhaven Collaboration which, using Reines’ research, demonstrated for the first time the role of the neutrino in stellar collapse.
It has been said that no other scientist in history than Reines has been so intimately associated with the discovery and subsequent investigation of an elementary particle.
“I would like to think that the address where Mr. Reines lived as a student could be found, so that there could also be a plaque or sign placed there to let everyone know a Nobel Prize winner lived there,” said Pontus. “I think it’s very important that the residents of our city be aware of these people that made a difference to the world, not just our city, state or country. It surprises me that no one has ever done anything to recognize and honor these people.”
Reines’ work also has been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences, and he received many other awards, including the National Medal of Science.
For more information on Reines, visit the Nobel Museum’s official Web site at www.nobelprize.org.