Samuel Chao Chung Ting

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Samuel Chao Chung Ting

Nuclear physicist Samuel C. C. Ting (born 1936) shared the 1976 Nobel Prize for physics with Burton Richter for discovering the existence of a new particle called j/psi.

Samuel Chao Chung Ting's study of the physics of electron-positron pairs produced during a nuclear reaction led to the discovery of a new particle. This particle, j/psi, supplied nuclear theorists with the key to a suspected fourth quark and opened research into a fourth type of subatomic particle whose existence had until then been speculative. Ting's work during the latter decades of the twentieth century found him involved in what was dubbed "Big Science," experimentation requiring financing by top-notch teams of scientists, expensive state-of-the art equipment, governing boards, and an international approach. Ting was especially suited for work in such a high-pressure environment. An Economist contributor noted in profiling the American physicist that he "is determined to get authoritative results, and demands that his associates be similarly single-minded. An experiment run by Dr. Ting is not a casual affair; to say that he is strict is … an understatement. He can be charming. He can also be ruthless."

Raised in War-torn China

Ting was born January 27, 1936, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His parents, Kuan Hai Ting, an engineering professor, and Tsun-Ying Wang, a psychology professor, were graduate students at the University of Michigan; while they had intended to return to their native China before Tsun-Ying gave birth, the infant was born two months early. He was the first of three children born to the Tings.

Two months after Ting's birth, his parents returned to mainland China, where he was raised by his parents and maternal grandmother. Because of the disruption caused by the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, Ting was not able to enter school until he was 12. His early education fell to his family, especially to his maternal grandmother, a independent-minded widow and teacher who raised her daughter and put both herself and Ting's mother through college during a time when women in China were not usually so self-reliant. Both his parents worked throughout Ting's childhood, and through their affiliation with academics from several Chinese universities they instilled in their son an interest in learning. As Ting noted in his autobiography for the online Nobel e-Museum, "Perhaps because of this early influence, I have always had the desire to be associated with university life."

During his teens he and his family moved to Taiwan, where his father taught engineering at the National Taiwan University. Accepted at one of Taipei's most acclaimed senior high schools, Ting excelled in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and history.

Encouraged by his parents to attend their alma mater, Ting was accepted to the University of Michigan. On December 6, 1956, he arrived at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport with a hundred dollars and only a few words of English. Fortunately, the dean of the university's engineering school was a friend of Ting's father, and he and his family opened their home to the 20-year-old student. While his inability to communicate with his fellow students caused Ting difficulty as a college freshman at Michigan, he quickly gained skill in English and was relatively fluent by his sophomore year.

Little Money, Large Goals

Ting was determined to excel in his studies. He was able to obtain enough scholarship and grant money to fund his degree, and after switching from the School of Engineering to the School of Science, he earned his B.S. in engineering mathematics and physics in 1959. Ting earned his M.A. the following year and by 1962 received his Ph.D. in physics, a remarkable feat considering that Ting had only a weak grasp of English six years previously.

Ting courted a young architect named Kay Louise Kuhne; they married in 1960 and had two daughters, Jeanne and Amy, before their eventual divorce. With his Ph.D. completed, in 1963 Ting and his family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he served as a Ford Foundation postdoctoral scholar at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. There, Ting worked alongside Italian physicist Guisseppe Cocconi on a new type of particle accelerator called the Proton Synchrotron, emulating the Italian physicist's exacting methodology.

Returning to the United States the following spring, Ting joined the faculty at Columbia University, where he worked with a number of well-known physicists and became interested in the physics of electron-positron pair production. Electrons and positrons are similiar subatomic particles, with electrons negatively charged and positrons positively charged. In the process of atomic decay, electron-positron pairs are produced.

During Ting's second year at Columbia, he heard about an interesting experiment using Harvard University's Electron Accelerator, with results seemingly in violation of accepted predictions of quantum electrodynamics (the interaction of matter with electromagnetic radiation). In the Harvard experiment, photons collided with a nuclear target, creating electron-positron pairs.

Perplexed by the Harvard results, in March 1966 Ting took a leave of absence from Columbia and went to the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron installation in Hamburg, Germany, to see if he could duplicate the Harvard experiment. With a team of colleagues, he constructed a double-arm spectrometer, an instrument capable of verifying that the quantum electrodynamics description of particle emissions is correct to distances as small as one hundred-trillionth of a centimeter. Using this spectrometer, Ting was able to study the physics of electron pairs, particularly the way such pairs are created during the decay of photon-like particles. The instrument also allowed Ting to view the angles of particulate deflection from the beam of radiation, facilitating calculations of particulate mass and allowing scientists to view the relationships between specific particles.

In 1967 Ting returned to the United States and joined the physics faculty as an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he became a full professor two years later. In early 1972, Ting led his research team in a follow-up experiment at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York. To aid his research into the production of electron-positron pairs, Ting designed a more advanced version of the double-arm spectrometer. This new version, using a higher-energy proton beam, was able to increase the beam's energy in small increments and monitor the effect of those incremental changes on particle pair production. Ting hoped that the change would create a heavier particle that would decay into electron-positron pairs. The new spectrometer proved effective, and Ting's reputation among his colleagues was greatly enhanced by his demanding quest for irrefutable findings while at Brookhaven.

The J Particle

In August 1974 the experiment at Brookhaven produced a surprising reading, a spike in the production of electron-positron pairs at 3.1 billion electron volts. This reading diverged from then-current atomic theory. Believing the reading to denote the presence of a yet-unknown high-mass particle, Ting analyzed the experimental data for months, reporting his finding to colleague Giorgio Bellettini, director of Italy's Frascati Laboratory. Bellettini confirmed Ting's discovery, and in November the physicists jointly presented their findings in papers published in Physical Review Letters. Ting had discovered a new elementary particle three times heavier than a proton, with a narrow range of energy states, and with a longer life span than anything known in physics. Since Ting's work involved electromagnetic currents bearing the symbol "j," and because the Chinese character representing the word "Ting" is similar in form to the letter "J," he called his discovery the "J particle."

Shortly after Ting's announcement, Stanford University's Linear Accelerator Center director Wolfgang Panofsky notified Ting that Stanford University physicist Burton Richter had also recently demonstrated the existence of a new particle, dubbed the "psi particle," by forcing collisions between electrons and positrons in Sanford's accelerator. When the two physicists met and compared their results, they realized the particles they had each discovered were the same. The dual discovery by Ting and Richter of what is now called the "j/psi particle" sparked research by other physics laboratories, providing nuclear theorists with the first experimental evidence of the existence of a fourth fundamental subatomic particle or "quark," dubbed "charm," whose existence some nuclear theorists had predicted as early as 1970. It was speculated that charm unified electromagnetic forces with other, weaker forces, balancing such forces at high energy.

Nobel Prize

In 1976 the 40-year-old Ting joined Richter in sharing the Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of a heavy elementary particle of a new kind. Because less than two years had passed since the announcement of their dual discoveries, the two physicists set a record for the briefest period between discovery to Nobel recognition in the award's history. Although the speed with which the award was bestowed concerned some members of the scientific community, Ting and Richter's discovery has stood the test of time. Earning the Nobel Prize solidified the reputation of both physicists. Ting was hailed as a daring, precise experimentalist who approached his work with great insight and attention to detail.

Other kudos quickly followed. Immediately following his Nobel win, Ting was presented with the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Memorial Award for Physics from the U.S. Energy Research and Development Agency, followed by the Eringen medal in 1977 and the Forum Engelberg prize in 1996. In 1978 the University of Michigan honored its esteemed graduate with a Doctoris Honoris Causa. Other honorary degrees came from the Chinese University in Hong Kong in 1987, the University of Bologna in 1988, Columbia University and China's University of Science and Technology in 1990, Moscow State University in 1991, and the University of Bucharest in Romania in 1993.

Research into Atomic Construction

After his Nobel win, Ting continued to involve himself in large-scale, expensive experiments in his continued search for new subatomic particles. In 1979 he worked with researchers at China's University of Science and Technology to verify the existence of gluon, which transmits energy between quarks. In the late 1980s he became active in the scientific community's advocacy of a proposed superconducting super collider, a $8-plus billion particle collider supported by President Ronald Reagan. In 1990 Ting and his team were one of three groups competing for the contract to build the giant particle detector required for use with the Texas-based super-collider. Ting's proposed detector was not chosen for the project.

In 1989 Ting led a team of physicists in an experiment based in France that attempted to prove the existence of yet another subatomic particle, the "Higgs boson," a force recognized as a key to understanding the origins of mass—the quality that causes objects to have inertia and requires the application of some degree of force in order to move them. In 1996 Ting joined a group of astrophysicists in positioning an antimatter detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on a NASA space shuttle.

As well as serving on the MIT faculty, in 1977 Ting was named MIT's first Thomas Dudley Cabot Institute Professor, and he has traveled to Beijing Normal College, Jiatong University in Shanghai, and the University of Bologna to serve as honorary professor to advanced physics students at those institutions. He was made a fellow of the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, the Pakistani Academy of Science, Academia Sinica, the Russian Academy of Science, the Hungarian Academy of Science, the Deutsche Academie Naturforscher Leopoldina, and the National Academy of Sciences. Ting also belongs to physical societies in both the United States and Europe.

In April 1985 Ting married his second wife, educator Susan Carol Marks, with whom he had a son, Christopher. A soft-spoken yet authoritarian person with well-known ambition, Ting was as meticulous in his experimentation and analysis as in his dress. Noted for his uniform of a dark suit and tie, he retained the same drive to uncover new facets of the physical world as he did as a young student on his way to America in pursuit of knowledge.


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"Samuel C. C. Ting—Autobiography," Nobel e-Museum, (August 8, 2002). □

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Samuel Chao Chung Ting

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