Nobel laureate, U of C professor emeritus James Cronin dead at 84

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Longtime University of Chicago Professor James W. Cronin, a pioneering scientist who shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1980, died Aug. 25 in Saint Paul, Minn. He was 84. | University of Chicago photo

James W. Cronin, a Nobel laureate and professor emeritus of University of Chicago, was remembered Saturday by one former colleague as “one of the gods of experimental science.”

Theoretical physicist Chris Quigg met Cronin when he started working at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in 1974. Quigg said he would attend weekly seminars organized by Cronin’s group.

“They were stimulating conversations that James would animate without dominating them,” Quigg recalled. “He had a wonderful way of engaging people and helping his young colleagues grow up.”

Cronin, a Chicago native, died Thursday in Saint Paul, Minn. at 84, according to the university. He will be remembered as an exceptional mentor with a wealth of knowledge he generously shared with the scientific community, Quigg said.

He also was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics with Val Fitch, who died in February 2015, for their 1964 discovery about the laws governing matter and antimatter and how they affect the universe. The two observed the first example of nature’s preference for matter over antimatter, a phenomenon physicists cite as the reason for matter’s existence.

“If you paid attention to what he was thinking about, you were often led to interesting directions — you could trust his results and learn a lot from them,” Quigg said. “That discovery changed people’s lives dramatically.”

Cronin earned his bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Southern Methodist University before graduating from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in physics in 1955. He returned to the university in 1971. In 1997, he became University Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The University of Chicago hailed Cronin as a mentor, collaborator and visionary.

James W. Cronin, who died Thursday at age 84, spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, first as a student and then a professor. | University of Chicago photo

James W. Cronin, who died Thursday at age 84, spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, first as a student and then a professor. | University of Chicago photo

“He inspired us all to reach further into the unknown with deep intuition, solid scientific backing and poetic vision,” Angela Olinto, the Homer J. Livingston Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics, was quoted as saying in a university press release. “He accepted his many recognitions and accolades with so much humility that he encouraged many generations to follow his vision.”

After earning his doctorate, Cronin began his career as an assistant physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he met Fitch. It was here that the duo conducted the research that resulted in their Nobel Prize. Fitch then brought Cronin to Princeton, where he taught until 1971.

Cronin spent his final years as co-leader of the $50 million Pierre Auger Project, which he founded in 1992 with physicist Alan Watson. The two created the Auger Observatory, based in Argentina, which is designed to detect extremely powerful, cosmic rays that periodically travel through Earth’s atmosphere.

“It was definitely a great partnership as we drummed up financial and scientific support for the collaboration,” said Watson in the University of Chicago’s news release. “It’s been an outstanding success, and it’s still going strong.”

Cronin is survived by his wife, Carol; daughter, Emily Grothe; son, Daniel Cronin; and grandchildren James, Cathryn, Caroline, Meredith, Alex and Marlo. Arrangements for a memorial service are pending, according to the university’s news release.

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