October 14, 2008

University-affiliation limits unclear

Your coverage of Yoichiro Nambu’s Nobel Prize was marred by the nonsensical statement

Your coverage of Yoichiro Nambu’s Nobel Prize was marred by the nonsensical statement, “In winning the Nobel Prize, Nambu joins a group of 82 other Prize winners affiliated with the University as students, researchers, or faculty members”—an inanity only partially excusable by the fact that President Zimmer also made that claim.

In fact nobody can say how many Nobel Prize winners have been “affiliated with the University” since the University of Chicago has never defined what it means by “affiliated.” For example, it stretches a point to claim that Julian Schwinger was “affiliated” with the University of Chicago, when his affiliation consisted of two months on campus in the summer of 1944—not as a faculty member but working on wartime reactor calculations. (See for example Schwinger’s biography, Climbing the Mountain, by Jagdish Mehra and Kimball Milton.) Or, if the University insists that Schwinger be included, how is it possible that the official list excludes (for example) Max Born, who was a visiting instructor in physics in the summer of 1912, as the guest of Albert A. Michelson, or Alexander Todd, who was a visiting professor of biochemistry in the fall of 1948? Both of these appointments were far more substantive than Schwinger’s brief contact.

Other universities, such as Harvard, have clear criteria for inclusion on a list of affiliated Nobel laureates. The inane Nobel count by the University of Chicago is embarrassing and should be abandoned.

Robert Michaelson

S.B. ’66

Evanston, IL