Contact: Lynn Yarris (510) 486-5375
[email protected]

BERKELEY, CA —  Marvin Cohen and Gabor Somorjai, senior staff scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and professors with the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) for more than 35 years, are among the 15 recipients of this year’s National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest award for lifetime achievement in fields of scientific research. They will receive their medals from President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony later this summer.

Marvin Cohen

Cohen, 67, who holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and the UCB Physics Department, is a theorist recognized worldwide as a master at creating atom-by-atom models that explain and predict the properties of solid materials. Most recently, he has been at the forefront of the nano revolution having successfully predicted a semi-conducting boron nitride nanotube that was subsequently synthesized.

Somorjai, 67, who holds a joint appointment with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and the UCB Chemistry Department, is an international authority on catalysis and regarded by his peers as the father of modern surface chemistry. He, too, has been at the nanoscience forefront, having recently used a nanoparticle array of platinum crystals on a silicon oxide surface to create the prototype for a high-tech catalyst.

Both men were notified they’d won the award via a phone call from John Marburger, science adviser to President Bush.

Said Cohen, in reaction, “I have thought about physics every day in some capacity for the past 50 years. I was interested in physics as a child even before I knew it was physics, and so this is a most gratifying recognition.”

Gabor Somorjai

Said Somorjai, “No award could mean more to me than this. It has always been my hope that I was giving back something in return for the opportunities this country has given me. I have been so lucky and I appreciate my good fortune.”

Berkeley Lab director Charles Shank expressed his appreciation for having two Lab scientists recognized.

“The prestigious honors received by Marvin and Gabor bring distinction to Berkeley Lab and are testimony to our impressive heritage in the fields of materials theory and surface science,” Shank said. “Both in their fifth decade of service to our Laboratory and to the nation, they are now integral parts of our investigations at the frontiers of nanotechnology, again bringing their celebrated expertise to bear on the most pressing scientific challenges of our time.”

The addition of Cohen and Somorjai brings the number of Berkeley Lab winners of the National Medal of Science to an even dozen dating back to 1963 when Luis Alvarez won in the physical sciences category. The medal was established by Congress in 1959 as a Presidential Award to be given to individuals “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences.” In 1980, Congress expanded this recognition to include the social and behavioral sciences. Cohen won in the category of physical science, Somorjai, in chemistry.

Cohen came to Berkeley in 1964 from the Bell Telephone Laboratories at Murray Hill, New Jersey, where he’d spent a year after earning his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. A native of Canada, he was born March 3, 1935 in Montreal, and moved to California when he was 12. He became a U.S. citizen in 1953. Four years later he’d earned his Bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley.

Cohen, who has authored more than 650 papers plus a textbook on solid state theory, has been formally recognized as the most cited condensed matter theorist of the past 30 years. Among his many awards and honors are the Oliver F. Buckley Prize for Solid State Physics and the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1980, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993. In 1995, he was named a prestigious “University Professor” by the UC Board of Regents.

In a career that has seen him accurately predict the properties of numerous semiconductors and superconductors, what happens to materials under intense pressure, and the possibility of a carbon nitride compound that is harder than diamond, for which he was awarded a patent, Cohen’s single most important contribution might well be his “pseudopotential” model. This model enables theorists to put atoms in different arrangements and predict which will be the most stable based on the resulting energies.

“To investigate a material all you need are the atomic weights and numbers,” Cohen once said. “With the pseudopotential model, we can predict a material’s atomic structure, its surface properties, how it reflects light, and whether it will be superconducting. We can even predict the existence of materials that have never been seen before.”

Cohen will be attending the White House awards ceremony with his wife,
Suzy, and other family members.

Gabor Somorjai was born in Budapest, Hungary, on May 4, l935. He was a chemical engineering student at the Technical University in Budapest in 1956 when the ill-fated Hungarian uprising against the ruling Communist regime erupted. Somorjai was part of a wave of Hungarian students that emigrated to the United States in 1957. He enrolled in the graduate school at UC Berkeley and went on to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1960. He became a U.S. citizen in 1962 in the midst of a four year stint with the IBM research staff at Yorktown Heights, New York. In 1964 he returned to Berkeley.

Somorjai is the author of more than 850 scientific papers and three textbooks on surface chemistry and heterogeneous catalysis. Among his many awards and honors are the Wolf Foundation Prize in chemistry, and from the American Chemical Society, the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry and the Adamson Award in Surface Chemistry. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983. In April of this year, he was named a “University Professor” by the UC Board of Regents.

“A society’s standard of living can be measured by its knoweldge of industrial catalysis,” Somorjai once said, referring to the fact that nearly all manufacturing processes involving chemistry start with a catalytic reaction between the surfaces of two materials. When Somorjai began his career, scientific data on the structure, composition and reactivity of surfaces, especially at the critical molecular level, was scarce.

“We developed a large number of techniques and instrumentation to study reactions at the molecular level on single crystal surfaces,” he recently said in explaining his unique approach of working with simple surfaces in order to discover how chemical reactions occur on them, and then extrapolating the results to the more complex surfaces used in industrial reactions. Somorjai’s approach has led to a far better understanding of catalysis and other important surface interactions such as adhesion, lubrication, friction, and adsorption. He is now the chemist most often cited in the fields of surface chemistry and catalysis.

Somorjai will be attending the White House awards ceremony with his wife, Judith, and other family members.

Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California. Visit our Website at

Marvin Cohen can be reached via phone at (510)642-4753
or by e-mail at [email protected]

Gabor Somorjai can be reached via phone at (510) 642-4053
or by e-mail at [email protected]

For additional information visit the following Websites:

NSF press release
UC Berkeley press release
Marvin Cohen Website
Gabor Somorjai Website