The Nobel Thieves

Stealing one of the golden medals is sure to bring infamy.

By Stephen Ornes|Thursday, May 24, 2007

To win a Nobel Prize brings fame. It takes hard work, intelligence, and luck to make a breakthrough that will change the world.

To steal a Nobel, on the other hand, brings infamy. It takes the right job, a set of keys, and a little “whim” to stage a break-in that will make headlines.

In March employees of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley discovered that the solid gold Nobel medallion won by physicist Ernest Lawrence had been swiped overnight from a locked glass display cabinet. Lawrence won the award in 1939 for inventing the cyclotron, a particle accelerator. The medallion was worth about $4,200, and Berkeley offered a reward of $2,500. “It’s an iconic thing . . . that was the first Nobel Prize awarded to a scientist working at Berkeley,” says Susan Gregory, deputy director of the museum. “We’ve not had a theft of an artifact in 39 years.”

The Berkeley thief joined a club that might be even more exclusive than the community of Nobel winners: Nobel thieves. To date, at least two other medallions have been stolen. In 2004 the Nobel Prize awarded in 1913 to poet Rabindranath Tagore went missing from a museum in Shantiniketan, India. Tagore was the first nonwesterner to win the prize. The other stolen prize belonged to Kay Miller, who shared the 1985 Peace Prize with her colleagues at International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

The Tagore medal has never been recovered, but Miller’s turned up earlier this year in Salt Lake City. In January Utah police searched the car of a man in custody for other reasons and discovered a gun, dozens of driver’s licenses, and bizarrely, Miller’s Nobel Prize. The man had previously lived in Miller’s basement.

Lawrence’s medal, too, eventually made its way back home. Following up on an anonymous tip, police recovered it in March from a 22-year-old Berkeley biology major who told police he had taken it on “a whim.” The student, Ian Michael Sanchez, worked at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Gregory says the award will be put away until next year, when the museum celebrates its 40th anniversary. In the meantime, the museum will display a copy of the medal loaned by a staff member who worked with Lawrence, who had given each person on his team a replica.

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