Nobel Newspaper Articles

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

These are three of several newspaper articles related to Prof. Laughlin's 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Boston Globe
Wednesday, 14 October 1998

Judging Impact of Nobel Work May Take Years

By David Chandler

Most people - perhaps even most scientists - had probably never heard of a fractional Hall effect before yesterday, when the Nobel Prize committee announced that three scientists were being awarded this year's physics prize for their detection of the phenomenon.

And by tomorrow, most people may have forgotten about it again.

So how did the committee come to make its selection? And, in these days of increasingly complex and obscure scientific research, how can anyone judge the ultimate importance of work whose details are understood by only a few scientists?

Horst Stoermer, one of the new physics laureates, said yesterday that as he and his colleagues were carrying out the work that was to earn them the award, "if someone had been standing behind me and said something about Nobel Prizes, I would have laughed."

At the time, he said, "we had no idea what the implication was."

Even now, Stoermer said at a press conference at Bell Labs in New Jersey, which employed him and the other researchers when they made the discovery in a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it seems absurd to him that the prize has elevated his work to such an elite company, joining the "legacy of Einstein" and other great Nobelists of the past. "It's an absurd joke. These people are in an absolutely different category."

In making the observation of unexpected behavior of a transistor in an intense magnetic field in an MIT laboratory, he said, "We just stumbled onto this."

But as obscure as the work may seem to the average person, others say Stoermer is being far too modest. Philip Morrison, a physicist at MIT, said yesterday that the discovery by Stoermer and his colleagues Robert Laughlin and Daniel Tsui "sure is obscure, but what it amounts to is the discovery of a phenomenon that is very widespread."

What they found, he said, was one example of a "quasi-particle," that is, something that behaves as if it were a true elementary particle even though in fact it is a large aggregation of particles.

Such phenomena, Morrison said, are very important in a number of areas, such as superconducting materials that transmit electricity with virtually no loss. "I do think that's quite important, not as widespread as something that deals with light or gravity," but it actually may have more direct and practical applications than large-scale theoretical work.

"They've learned something basic" about kinds of matter that affect our everyday lives, he said.

Philip Anderson, a physicist and emeritus professor at Princeton University, and himself a Nobel Laureate in 1997, said that the new work provides new insights into quantum theory, and unless you really understand how quantum theory works, you're not going to understand how the world works."

The effect the three physicists observed, in which electrons in a transistor appeared to exhibit electrical charges that were only one-third of what they should have been, happened in very unusual conditions: a temperature of almost absolute zero, and the strongest magnetic field every produced on Earth at that time, one million times as strong as the Earth's. Nevertheless, Anderson said, if matter can behave that way in these conditions, "it gives us the freedom to think that it might do that somewhere else in the universe. ... It's an entirely new possibility, and real novelty is not that common."

While is is easy to look back at the Nobel laureates from decades ago and see clearly how important their work was, it can be difficult to assess the significance of recent work, he said.

"We can look back at things that looked unimpressive or obscure at the time," he said. "Nowadays, there are whole scientific societies based on these things that seemed fairly irrelevant."

His own early work on magnetic domain theory, he said, was something "we were doing for pure curiosity." But, in ways that he could never have foreseen, some of that work helped to form the basis for magnetic recording in everything from videocassettes to computer disk drives. "The ideas ended up being multibillion dollar industries."

But not all great discoveries that ended up having important applications have garnered Nobel prizes for their discoverers, said Laughlin, one of yesterday's new laureates and a physics professor at Stanford University. Bell Laboratories, originally a division of AT&T and now, since that company's divestiture, an arm of Lucent Technologies, is highly unusual in sponsoring the kind of pure scientific research that has earned its scientists more Nobels than all but a handful of nation.

Most industrial research, Laughlin said, is conducted under total secrecy so that the sponsoring company can benefit from exclusive use of any inventions that result. Thus, while the Bell Labs invention of the transistor was public - and earned a Nobel - the followup discover of the Metal-Oxide Semiconductor Field-Effect transistor, or MOSFET, was done in secret by Fairchild Corp.

That was the invention that "was really worth" of a prize, Laughlin said. Yet "nobody can say off the top of their head who invented it," and there are no detailed reports of the discovery in the scientific literature.

Laughlin disputed assertions that his group's work might lead to practical applications. "I say no," he said. "The things that I know that are of technical value are all secret."

While a few worthy scientists have been overlooked by the Nobel Committee over the years, Anderson said, on the whole they have done a remarkably good job of honoring the right people - at least in the areas of physics and chemistry. "I'm not talking about Literature or Peace," he said, "but in physics, there are very few that you could point to and say those were a real mistake."

Kenneth Brecher, professor of physics and astronomy at Boston University, said that in the early days of this century, there may have been a few such cases: Nobel prizes in physics were granted to the inventors of the automated lighthouse and of color photography. While both were certainly worthy inventions that had an impact on society, they are not generally thought of these days as landmarks of physics.

Still, he said, Stoermer shouldn't feel bad about not being in the same league as past laureates like Einstein. "Who else can be Einstein?" Nobody's going to slam you for that."

Boston Globe
Wednesday, 14 October 1998

Joint Science Prizes Now Commonplace

By David L. Chandler

Yesterday's two Nobel Prize awards, in physics and chemistry, ended up going to five scientists working at five widely separated institutions - an increasingly common phenomenon in science prizes these days.

Often, such joint awards are the result of collaborations among researchers with different affiliations.

These are becoming more common because of the ease of communication over the Internet, and because teams of scientists based at different universities or laboratories often come together to do research projects at huge facilities such as particle accelerators or astronomical observatories that are made available to all scientists on a competitive basis.

Some scientific papers in particle physics, for example, are not published with lists of coauthors that can run longer than the paper itself, sometimes listing 500 or more collaborators, often from dozens of institutions in several countries.

The Nobel Prizes, however, are limited to three recipients for a given discovery.

But this year's recipients do not fall into the category of cross-institutional collaboration. Rather, they represent cases of independent discovery, and of changes in affiliation and the lag time before awards are granted.

In the case of the chemistry award, the two recipients were working independently on different aspects of the same problem. They received the prize jointly for their contributions to the field.

The physics prize, on the other hand, went to members of a team that worked together, at the time of their 1982 discovery. Since then, however, they have scattered: to Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia universities. In today's highly mobile scientific world, such migrations are not unusual.

Boston Globe
Wednesday, 14 October 1998

Out of Smallest Elements, Big Discoveries

Physics, Chemistry Prizes Acknowledge Work on Quantum Subjects of Matter

By Curt Suplee (Washington Post)

Researchers at five American universities won the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry yesterday for their investigations of the behavior of matter at the smallest scale.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the physics prize to Robert B. Laughlin of Stanford University, Horst L. Störmer of Columbia University and Daniel C. Tsui of Princeton University for their discovery that, under certain circumstances, electrons act like weird "quasiparticles" with only a fraction of the electrical charge that an electron is supposed to have.

That work, the Nobel organization said, constitutes "a breakthrough in our understanding of quantum physics," the set of principles that describes how the fundamental units of matter and energy interact. In practical terms, it may improve understanding of micro-electronic and optical devices.

The chemistry prize went to Walter Kohn of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and John A. Pople, a British citizen working at Northwestern University, for devising ways to calculate mathematically how chemical bonds among atoms form and change.

Kohn and Pople, laboring independently on different aspects of the problem, invented ingenious computational methods that now make it possible to predict many aspects of reactions and molecular structures in pharmaceuticals, climate chemistry and astronomy, among other fields.

On its face, the physics research seems to contradict one of the bedrock axioms of modern science - namely, that the electron is a truly elementary particle, with no apparent structure, no subcomponents and an unvarying electrical charge. Yet what Störmer and Tsui observed in the lab, and what Laughlin later explained in theory, were unexpected entities that were comporting themselves as if they were one-third or two-fifths or some other peculiar fraction of an electron. This made no sense, especially since the experimenters were examining the seemingly well-studied Hall effect, a phenomenon with a century-old pedigree.

In 1879, U.S. physicist Edwin Hall found that when a conductor carrying a current was placed in a magnetic field perpendicular to the current, many of the moving charged particles got shoved to one side or the other of the conductor, depending on their charge. As a result, positive charges piled up on one edge of the conductor and negative charges on the other, creating an internal voltage at right angles to the main current.

But in 1980, German physicist Klaus von Klitzing explored the phenomenon in a conducting layer so thin that, in effect, it allowed electrons to move in only two dimensions. Working at low temperatures and with much higher magnetic fields than Hall had used, von Klitzing observed that the voltage did not vary smoothly as the field was increased, but changed in incremental steps - like moving up a staircase instead of sliding up a ramp.

In von Klitzing's experiments, the Hall voltage was quantized, meaning broken down into units called "quanta". These are whole-number multiples of a constant based on the size of the individual electron charge. The discovery of the "integer quantum Hall effect" garnered von Klitzing the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In 1982, Störmer and Tsui were at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, looking at the same phenomenon, but at temperatures near absolute zero, with magnetic fields four times stronger and in high-purity materials.

They found a very large number of steps, most of which were not whole-number multiples, but strange fractions such as four-sevenths or five-ninths. Soon thereafter, Laughlin offered a controversial explanation: The electrons were combining with bits of the magnetic field energy to condense into fluid-like conglomerates, or quasiparticles, with many different fractional charges.

The chemistry prize, too, involved quantum aspects of matter. Since the 1920s, with the advent of quantum mechanics, scientists have known that atoms and their electrons combine and interact according to mathematically describable rules.

Unfortunately, the quantum-mechanical equations are so difficult that in practice it was simply impossible to solve them.

Then in the 1960s, Kohn created a method called "density-functional theory" that allowed scientists to used simplifying approximations to determine the interactions of many electrons in very large molecules. A few years later, Pople devised the first version of a computerized system that would simulate the shape of a molecule or the quality of a reaction from the data about the constituent atoms or type of chemical activity desired.