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NIST Scientist Wins Nation's Highest Scientific Honor

President Clinton today named John W. Cahn (photo), a leading materials scientist at the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, to receive the 1998 National Medal of Science. He is the first NIST scientist to be awarded the medal, which is the nation's highest scientific honor.

The National Science Foundation announced that Cahn is recognized for his contributions to the fields of materials science, solid-state physics, chemistry and mathematics. He is most widely known for his elegant theories of how materials transform from one phase to another. These theories have been used by researchers in fields ranging from materials science to astronomy.

Cahn, a NIST Fellow since 1984, is one of nine recipients of this year's medal, which is awarded by NSF. President Clinton is expected to present the medals during a White House ceremony early next year.

Working in the Metallurgy Division of the NIST Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory, Cahn has had immense impact on three generations of materials scientists and helped define current understanding of how engineering materials can be made and used. His work contributing to the discovery of "quasi crystals" in 1984 sparked a revolution in crystallography.

Cahn, 70, of Bethesda, Md., began working at NIST in 1977, when the agency was still called the National Bureau of Standards. Previous to NBS, he served as a research associate at General Electric and as a professor of materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1953 from the University of California at Berkeley.

During his 40-year career, Cahn has had a profound influence on the progress of materials and mathematics research. He has published approximately 250 scientific papers, delivered 400 invited lectures on his work and received numerous national and international honors and awards.

For background information on Cahn, go to on the World Wide Web. On-line information about the National Medal of Science can be found at

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST promotes economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards through four partnerships: the Measurement and Standards Laboratories, the Advanced Technology Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Baldrige National Quality Program.

Statements About John W. Cahn's National Medal of Science

Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley:
"Dr. Cahn's outstanding achievements are an excellent example of the important role that basic research plays in the practical world, a vital function that we in the Commerce Department care deeply about. He is a great, original thinker who has applied fundamental scientific laws to the practice of solving down-to-earth problems affecting everyday life. As the only federal government researcher to receive this year's medal, Dr. Cahn adds further distinction to the Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology."

NIST Director Raymond Kammer:
"We are excited by, but not surprised about, John Cahn's national recognition. I would have to say that John is our best candidate to be named ‘NIST Renaissance Man of Materials Science.' He relentlessly strives to relate his extraordinary understanding of classical science and mathematics to a broad range of research. He is also a shining symbol of how government research is critical to American ingenuity."

David Turnbull, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, Emeritus, Harvard University:
"The research, instruction, and critiques of John Cahn have constituted a powerful driving force for the advancement of materials science over the past three and a half decades. They have vitally affected every area of the field and have strongly influenced statistical physics as well. It seems safe to say that without them, our knowledge and understanding of materials science would have been, today, in a far more primitive and disjointed state."

James S. Langer, Professor of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara:
"John Cahn has, for more than 30 years, been the world's intellectual leader in a broad range of the materials sciences. ... I do not know of any modern example in which a single individual has so completely dominated so broad and significant a field of science. ... Cahn is a chemist, a metallurgist, a physicist, a mathematician, and even in some sense a materials engineer; but he has never fit neatly into any of these categories. He always has shunned the popular and often esoteric topics in the mainstreams of narrowly focused disciplinary research, and has concentrated instead on the new scientific opportunities that are emerging largely at the boundaries between the disciplines."

Joel Lebowitz, Professor of Mathematics and Physics, Rutgers University:
"John Cahn is undoubtedly one of the deepest and most influential materials scientists of the second half of this century. His influence extends far beyond materials science to large areas of physics and mathematics. ... He is to macroscopic physics what Niels Bohr was to atomic and nuclear physics 50 years earlier."

Released December 8, 1998, Updated November 27, 2017