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Nobel Prize of Neutron Discoverer to Be Sold at Auction

James Chadwick (1891-1974) (Image credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's)

There's more than one way to get your hands on a Nobel gold medal.

The 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to English physicist James Chadwick for his discovery of the neutron will be offered this morning (June 3).

Sotheby's, which is handling the sale in New York, has estimated that the Nobel medal and its accompanying diploma will sell for $200,000-$400,000. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

Selby Kiffer, Sotheby's international senior books specialist, sees the medal as a tangible piece of memorabilia for the discovery of something almost incomprehensibly small. (Neutrons are the uncharged particles found within the nucleus of an atom.)

"It's hard sometimes to get a feel for scientific discovery," Kiffer told Live Science. "How do you collect something as nebulous as the discovery of the neutron? The Nobel Prize gives you that physical artifact that memorializes that great discovery."

The 1935 Nobel Prize Medal that was presented to James Chadwick for his discovery of the neutron. (Image credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's)

Chadwick's research played an instrumental role in the Manhattan Project; in fact, he led the British committee of the Allies' project to develop the first atomic bombs during World War II and was present during the Trinity bomb test in New Mexico. Chadwick, who was knighted in 1945, also foresaw that the discovery of neutrons would have implications for cancer treatment. 

"It is very true that he had hoped the discovery might be put to use in medicine, and he invested his Nobel Prize money in bringing a cyclotron machine to Liverpool to work on a neutron therapy to combat cancer," Kiffer said.

Chadwick's family sold his Nobel medal and diploma about 20 years ago to a collector of metals and numismatics. Kiffer said the collector might have been motivated to sell the Chadwick medal now after an expectation-shattering sale of the Nobel Prize medal and diploma that was awarded to Francis Crick in 1953 for the discovery of DNA's twisted ladder shape.

Last year, Crick's Nobel medal was auctioned off for more than $2 million. Nobel medals have rarely changed hands publicly and this 2013 sale marked the first time one was publicly sold at auction.

Heritage Auctions had valued Crick's Nobel medal and diploma at $500,000. It was ultimately purchased by the CEO of a Chinese biomedical firm for a whopping $2,270,500. During a separate sale last year, a letter penned by Crick set the world record for any letter ever sold at auction when an anonymous bidder paid just over $6 million for the note Crick wrote to his 12-year-old son explaining the DNA discovery.

The Sotheby's auction lot containing Chadwick's Nobel and diploma will start at 10 a.m. ET.

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Megan Gannon
Megan Gannon
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.