An American won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for theories explaining phenomena like how plants store energy from light. A Frenchman won the physics award for an invention allowing a closer look into the heart of matter.
Rudolph Marcus, 69, of the California Institute of Technology _ a Canadian-born naturalized American _ was honored for work involving the transfer of electrons between molecules. Georges Charpak, a Polish-born Frenchman, was cited for his development of elementary particle detectors.
Both discoveries were made in the 1960s and are used by researchers worldwide.
Charpak, 68, suspected a prank when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called to say he had won the $1.2-million prize. Not until an academy member who had met Charpak took the phone and confirmed the prize was his did he believe it.
Charpak (pronounced Shahr-PUCK) said he had not expected to win the Nobel Prize for "a little thing" he invented 24 years ago. Since 1959 he has worked at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, near Geneva.
His invention, the multiwire proportional chamber, "revolutionized the way to register elementary particle reactions" by allowing researchers to see in much more detail the behavior of the smallest particles of matter, said academy member Per Carlson.
The detector also made it possible to monitor reactions on computer screens and track down single particle trajectories within a pattern of a billion reactions. Earlier equipment only registered the occurrence of particle reactions without revealing where they happened.
Carlson said Charpak's invention opened the door to some of the inner secrets of matter.
"Today practically every experiment in particle physics uses some type of track detector that has been developed from Charpak's original invention," the academy said.
The academy, which awarded both prizes, initially failed to reach Marcus, who was attending a scientific conference in Canada. So it left a message on his telephone answering machine in California.
"I guess I stood an inch taller," Marcus said in Toronto when he heard the news. "It's great to win the prize, but the ultimate is to solve the problems and see your work used."
Marcus is the 21st Caltech faculty member or alumni to win a Nobel Prize since 1923.
"It does not get boring and it's still thrilling," said Caltech president Thomas Everhart. "If we won a couple more tomorrow or the next day, I'd still be thrilled."
The academy said Marcus' theories on transfer of electrons between molecules _ the simplest possible chemical reaction _ gave experimental chemists a valuable calculating tool.
Marcus' discovery has made it possible to explain things such as how plants store light energy, how corrosion occurs and how chemical luminescence _ such as the cold light of fireflies _ is produced.
David Mauzerall, a professor at Rockefeller University in New York, said Marcus' prize was "well deserved." Marcus was the first to calculate answers to the basic question of how fast an electron moves from one molecule to another, he said.
The study of electron transfer reactions has exploded in the past 10 years, spurred in part by development of new lasers and techniques to study them, Mauzerall said.
Academy member Bjorn Roos said when Marcus developed his theory between 1956 and 1965, colleagues had "wondered why he, a professor in experimental chemistry was just walking around thinking and not carrying out any experiments."
His work was experimentally confirmed by others at the end of the 1980s, the academy said.
Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel endowed the two science prizes in his 1896 will.