I was born on 27 January 1936 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the first of three children of Kuan Hai Ting, a professor of engineering, and Tsun-Ying Wang, a professor of psychology. My parents had hoped that I would be born in China, but as I was born prematurely while they were visiting the United States, by accident of birth I became an American citizen. Two months after my birth we returned to China. Owing to wartime conditions I did not have a traditional education until I was twelve. Nevertheless, my parents were always associated with universities, and I thus had the opportunity of meeting the many accomplished scholars who often visited us. Perhaps because of this early influence I have always had the desire to be associated with university life.
Since both my parents were working, I was brought up by my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandfather lost his life during the first Chinese Revolution. After that, at the age of thirty-three, my grandmother decided to go to school, became a teacher, and brought my mother up alone. When I was young I often heard stories from my mother and grandmother recalling the difficult lives they had during that turbulent period and the efforts they made to provide my mother with a good education. Both of them were daring, original, and determined people, and they have left an indelible impression on me.
When I was twenty years old I decided to return to the United States for a better education. My parents’ friend, G.G. Brown, Dean of the School of Engineering, University of Michigan, told my parents I would be welcome to stay with him and his family. At that time I knew very little English and had no idea of the cost of living in the United States. In China, I had read that many American students go through college on their own resources. I informed my parents that I would do likewise. I arrived at the Detroit airport on 6 September 1956 with $100, which at the time seemed more than adequate. I was somewhat frightened, did not know anyone, and communication was difficult.
Since I depended on scholarships for my education, I had to work very hard to keep them. Somehow, I managed to obtain degrees in both mathematics and physics from the University of Michigan in three years, and completed my Ph.D. degree in physics under Drs. L.W. Jones and M.L. Perl in 1962.
I went to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as a Ford Foundation Fellow. There I had the good fortune to work with Giuseppe Cocconi at the Proton Synchrotron, and I learned a lot of physics from him. He always had a simple way of viewing a complicated problem, did experiments with great care, and impressed me deeply.
In the spring of 1965 I returned to the United States to teach at Columbia University. In those years the Columbia Physics Department was a very stimulating place, and I had the opportunity of watching people such as L. Lederman, T.D. Lee, I.I. Rabi, M. Schwarts, J. Steinberger, C.S. Wu, and others. They all had their own individual style and extremely good taste in physics. I benefitted greatly from my short stay at Columbia.
In my second year at Columbia there was an experiment done at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator on electron-positron pair production by photon collision with a nuclear target. It seemed to show a violation of quantum electrodynamics. I studied this experiment in detail and decided to duplicate it. I contacted G. Weber and W. Jentschke of the Deutsches Elektronen Synchrotron (DESY) about the possibility of doing a pair production experiment at Hamburg. They were very enthusiastic and encouraged me to begin right away. In March 1966 I took leave from Columbia University to perform this experiment in Hamburg. Since that time I have devoted all my efforts to the physics of electron or muon pairs, investigating quantum electrodynamics, production and decay of photon-like particles, and searching for new particles which decay to electron or muon pairs. These types of experiments are characterized by the need for a high-intensity incident flux, for high rejection against a large number of unwanted background events, and at the same time the need for a detector with good mass resolution.
In order to search for new particles at a higher mass, I brought my group back to the United States in 1971 and started an experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In the fall of 1974 we found evidence of a new, totally unpredicted, heavy particle – the J particle. Since then a whole family of new particles has been found.
In 1969 I joined the Physics Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1977, I was appointed as the first Thomas Dudley Cabot Institute Professor of Physics at MIT. In recent years it has been my privilege to be associated with M. Deutsch, A.G. Hill, H. Feshbach, W. Jentschke, H. Schopper and G. Weber. All have strongly supported me. In addition, I have enjoyed working with many very outstanding young physicists such as U. Becker, J. Burger, M. Chen, R. Marshall and A.J.S. Smith.
I married Dr. Susan Marks in 1985. We have one son, Christopher, born in 1986 and I have two daughters, Jeanne and Amy, from an earlier marriage.
I have been awarded the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award from the US government in 1976 and the DeGasperi Award in Science from the Italian government in 1988. I have also received the Eringen Medal awarded by the Society of Engineering Science in 1977, the Golden Leopard Award for Excellence from the town of Taormina, Italy in 1988 and the Gold Medal for Science and Peace from the city of Brescia, Italy in 1988. I am a member of the National Academy of Sciences (US) and the American Physical Society, the Italian Physical Society and the European Physical Society. I have also been elected as a foreign member in Academia Sinica, the Pakistan Academy of Science and the Academy of Science of the USSR (now Russian Academy of Science). I also hold Doctor Honoris Causa degrees from the University of Michigan, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Columbia University, the University of Bologna, Moscow State University and the University of Science and Technology in China and am an honorary professor at Jiatong University in Shanghai, China.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.