Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. always credited the “extremely stimulating” intellectual environment at UMass Amherst for providing the backdrop for his Nobel Prize-winning research.
Taylor and one of his doctoral students, Russell Hulse, shared the Nobel in physics for discovering, in 1974, a binary pulsar that they used to demonstrate the existence of gravitational radiation as first predicted by Albert Einstein.
UMass turned out to be a good place to do this work. It had a joint physics and astronomy department, says Hulse, now a professor and associate vice president of the University of Texas, Dallas.
“I was given the elbow room there to experiment and do it myself,” he says. “That was a good introduction to doing research, because research involves making up a lot of things as you go along.”
By the time the Nobel was awarded, Taylor and Hulse had both moved on to Princeton, and their Nobel remains UMass Amherst’s one and only (by way of comparison, it’s a curiously low figure. University of Illinois has 26, University of Minnesota 21 and Amherst College, across town, has five).
“UMass is in a, shall we say, unique position among public universities by being in a state with many other strong institutions,” says Hulse, who has served on an advisory council to the College of Natural Sciences there. “I was aware of that issue as a graduate student, but in subsequent years as a professional scientist, I’ve become more aware of how serious it is.”
Of the paucity of Nobels, he says, “One needs to be a little careful with using box scores like that as the sole judge of the quality of an institution, but, that said, it does have some significance, what sort of top prizes you get.”