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Nobel medal swiped

March 7, 2007 By Rex Dalton This article courtesy of Nature News.

Medallion goes missing in California.

A caper of Nobel stature has struck the University of California, Berkeley.

A thief has swiped the solid-gold medallion given as a Nobel Prize in Physics to Ernest Lawrence in 1939, in honour of his work inventing the cyclotron.

The 200-gram medal was taken last week from a locked case in the Lawrence Hall of Science, a museum and education facility in the hills above the campus dedicated to the scientist, who died at the age of 57 in 1958. The heist went down during exhibition hours at some point between Tuesday and Thursday; the loss wasn't reported publicly until 5 March.

Was it a common theft for the high-priced gold? A political statement or prank by someone at the, sometimes rebellious, campus? Or does the thief want something in return?

"There has been no ransom note," says university spokeswoman Linda Schneider. "The police have put out an all-points bulletin."

Stolen treasure

Other Nobel medallions have been scooped up before.

There has been no ransom note.
In January, police in Salt Lake City, Utah, recovered the Nobel medallion given to Kay Miller in 1985 for work with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Police found it while searching for a gun in the car of a man wanted on domestic violence charges; he had previously rented an apartment from Miller.

And in 2004, India was stunned by the theft of the Nobel medal given in 1913 to poet Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-Westerner to win a Nobel Prize in literature.

Other Nobel medallions have been threatened with confiscation rather than theft: the medals of Max von Laue and James Franck were secreted in the Bohr Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen during the Second World War. To prevent them being spotted by German authorities, a chemist at the institute dissolved the medals in acid; the inconspicuous bottle was then later retrieved, the gold reconstituted, and medals re-forged by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Other objects of sentimental scientific value have gone missing too — including some of the 135 'Goodwill' moon rocks given to heads of state by US officials; tiny chips of rock probably worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on the open market have been purloined from Honduras, Malta and Afghanistan.

Winners and losers

The Lawrence Nobel was the first for UC Berkeley; and the first for any public university.

The atom-smashing cyclotron and Lawrence's later work helped the United States to develop the nuclear bomb. Both the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are named after the physics pioneer.

UC Berkeley has since had 19 other Nobel winners. Replicas of the medals of several of those are displayed on the campus. But the Lawrence Hall case that was pried open held the real thing. The case also held some other awards, but none of these were taken.

The Lawrence Hall is offering a $2,500 reward for the 23-karat-gold medal — valued monetarily at $4,000 — and information leading to the theft's arrest. Rare coin, bullion and art collectors are being contacted by the police.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss," says Lawrence Hall director Elizabeth Stage.

Know something about the case? Contact Detective Bruce Bauer, University of California Police Department, via email at


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