The University Record, May 24 , 1999

Michigan Great Samuel C. C. Ting: Nobel Laureate physicist has long, strong ties with U

Editor‘s Note: This article is part of a series of profiles of U-M alumni who have made significant and lasting contributions through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Expanded versions of these articles are available on the Web at

By Lee Katterman
Office of the Vice President for Research

Samuel Ting‘s association with Ann Arbor goes back to his birth on Jan. 27, 1936. Ting‘s parents, scholars in their own right, were both graduate students at the University in early 1936. The couple planned to return soon to China, as she was pregnant. Chance intervened, however, and the Ting‘s first child was born in Ann Arbor, almost two months premature.

The Ting family did return to China, where Sam was raised by his parents and maternal grandmother. Because of World War II, Sam didn‘t begin formal schooling until he was nine years of age.

In 1956, Ting decided to go to the United States for college. G. G. Brown, then dean of the College of Engineering and a good friend of Sam Ting‘s parents, offered to let Sam live in the Brown home while he attended the University.

In 1959, after three years of study financed by scholarships, Ting earned a B.S. with a double major in engineering physics and engineering mathematics. He immediately began graduate work, also at the U-M. In three more years, by 1962, Ting had received master‘s and Ph.D. as well.

Lawrence Jones, professor emeritus of physics, co-chaired Ting‘s thesis committee. Jones says Ting was very talented academically, and that he was “a young man in a hurry, “ who even chose his dissertation research project with an eye toward how long he would need to complete the work.

One of Ting‘s graduate school classmates was physicist Homer Neal, former vice president for research and former interim president of the University. The two shared an office in the basement of Randall Laboratory. Neal recalls that Ting‘s desk was larger than his, but adds, “I knew he was a generous guy when, as he graduated a few years before me, he willed me his desk!”

After receiving his Ph.D., Ting went to CERN as a Ford Foundation postdoctoral scholar, then joined the faculty at Columbia University where he became interested in the physics of electron-positron pair production. (A positron is a nuclear particle like an electron, but with a positive charge.)

In the spring of 1972, Ting, then on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began experiments at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, again involving electron-positron pairs. In August 1974, his experiments produced a surprising reading, which Ting immediately recognized as something very different from theoretical expectations.

After several months of meticulous study of his data, Ting concluded he had evidence of a new elementary particle three times heavier than a proton and much longer-lived than anything physics currently knew of (where “long life” is often measured in minute fractions of a second). By November 1974, Ting announced his discovery of what he named the “J particle.”

At about the same time, Burton Richter at Stan-ford University demonstrated the existence of a new particle, which Richter named the “psi particle.” At a meeting between Ting and Richter that fall, they both realized the particles they had each discovered were the same. Their dual discoveries provided the first experimental evidence for a fourth quark, “charm,” that theoretical physicists had predicted.

In 1976, Ting, only 40 years old, and Richter shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. Less than two years had passed since their dual discoveries, the shortest time span from a discovery to such recognition in Nobel history.

The Nobel Prize solidified Ting‘s reputation as a daring, precise experimentalist who approached his work with great insight. In 1978, the U-M honored Ting by awarding him an honorary doctor of science degree.

Today, Ting is the Thomas Dudley Cabot Institute professor of physics at MIT, but maintains many links to Michigan. Last fall, he organized a special symposium at CERN to honor Jones on the occasion of his retirement from the U-M faculty. Ting has helped the Department of Physics with faculty recruitment, and two of his former graduate students, Jianming Qian and Bing Zhou, are members of the faculty.

Both Neal and Jones note that Ting is a loyal Michigan football fan. Ting himself recalls that in his six years in school at the U-M, he missed quite a few classes, but he never missed a football game.