University of Alberta's only Nobel laureate remembered

The University of Alberta is mourning physicist Richard Taylor, an alumnus who won a Nobel Prize for groundbreaking research that proved the existence of subatomic particles called quarks for the first time.

'Rather humble native son of Alberta' helped in the discovery of quarks

Richard Taylor, pictured above in 1967, won the Nobel Prize for his research on protons and neutrons at Stanford University. (U.S Department of Energy)

The University of Alberta is mourning physicist Richard Taylor, an alumnus who won a Nobel Prize for groundbreaking research that proved the existence of subatomic particles called quarks for the first time.

"In physics, it's one of the biggest results ever," said Jim Pinfold, a physics professor at University of Alberta who knew Taylor personally.

"The fact that he managed to explain what made up most of the matter in the universe, it's just absolutely incredible.

"This rather humble native son of Alberta."

Taylor died at his home in California near the Stanford University campus on Feb 22. He was 88.

While the scientific community will remember Taylor for his contribution in the understanding of all objects, large and small, his friends and colleagues will remember his dry wit and unwavering humility, Pinfold said. 

"He was a big man, big-hearted, big-spirited with a great sense of humour, which was often self-deprecating," Pinfold said in an interview Monday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"On the other hand, he was a no nonsense type of a guy, bluntly honest, and a brilliant experimental physicist."

I wasn't stupid but I wasn't working that hard.-Richard Taylor

Known as Dick to friends,Taylor was born in Medicine Hat, Alta., in 1929.

According to an obituary posted by Stanford University, the atomic bomb blasts of 1945 inspired Taylor to pursue physics.

By his own admission, Taylor was a poor student. He never graduated high school but proved adept enough at science and math that a teacher was able to secure him a place at the University of Alberta.

He went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in 1950 and a master's degree two years later, but his poor studying habits prevailed on campus.

"University was fun, but I was not a particularly good student," Taylor said in a 2008 interview.

"I wasn't trying all that hard. I played a lot of poker in the residence and then at end of the third year, I was handed the three-year B.Sc. and tossed out of the honours program and I stayed to get a masters degree.

"I had to begun to like some of the things that were going on in physics laboratories and I was getting a little bit handy at doing experiments."

"I wasn't stupid but I wasn't working that hard." 

Upon graduation, Taylor married fellow U of A grad Rita Jean Bonneau and was accepted to Stanford University, where he earned his PhD as part of the High Energy Physics Laboratory.

Taylor would spend three years at École Normale Supérieure in Paris and a year at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California.

He returned to Stanford in 1962, where construction had just begun on a two-mile-long particle accelerator, one of the world's largest atom smashers.

Taylor and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ran experiments on the accelerator and in 1968 proved the existence of quarks, the subatomic particles forming the basis of 99 per cent of all matter.

The experiments also provided the first evidence for the existence of gluons, elementary particles that "glue" quarks together, forming protons and neutrons.

The research helped lay the foundation for what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics, which establishes the fundamental particles of the universe and the forces that govern their interactions.

"Before that time, we had this vast collection of particles and did not know how they were put together," said high-energy physicist and Stanford professor Martin Breidenbach, who participated in the experiments as a graduate student at MIT.

"The Standard Model was a way of basing all the hadronic particles we knew about, including protons and neutrons, on more fundamental particles called quarks, and once that was clear, this whole big mess fell away."

In 1990, Taylor and his colleagues Jerome Friedman and Henry Kendall shared the Nobel Prize for their work. Taylor is the only U of A alumnus to ever be awarded the prize.

Despite his international acclaim, Taylor remained humble about his crowning achievement.

"You need to understand what the Nobel Prize is," Taylor said in 2008. "To win one you need some talent and some luck. And if you're really smart, you don't need much luck.

"If you're not really smart, you need a lot of luck and I was very lucky because I was here when we built this big accelerator, and I worked hard on building the experimental facilities for it."

The quarks and the stars were here when you came, and they will be here when you go.- Richard Taylor

While Taylor made his home in California, Alberta was never far from his mind.

In 1992, he accepted an invitation to join the U of A's physics department as an adviser and began making annual visits. He would continue the tradition for 20 years.

In 2005, Taylor was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, honouring his outstanding lifetime achievement and service to the country.

In the end, Taylor was just a touch introspective about his life's work.

"The quarks and the stars were here when you came, and they will be here when you go," he once said.

"They have no sense of humour so, if you want a world where more people smile, you will have to fix things yourselves."