Nobel Newspaper Article

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

This is one of several newspaper articles related to Prof. Laughlin's 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Contra Costa Times
Wednesday, 14 October 1998

Nobel for Stanford Professor

After a decade of research, Robert Laughlin, who also works part-time at Livermore Lab, says, 'I finally made it.'

A rumpled robert Laughlin strolled into his first public appearance after winning the Nobel Prize on Tuesday and slipped into a seat behind tgwo other Stanford University Nobel physicists.

"God, I finally made it," the 46-year-old professor and part-time Lawrence Livermore La boratory physicist said under his breath as he shook hands all around him.

That moment captured both the prestige and the pressures at Stanford as a member of its world-class physics faculty stunningly earned the department's fourth Nobel Prize in a row.

With the honor, Stanford edges past Harvard University to win the most Nobel physics prizes in the world - nine in all.

Laughlin, 47, praised for his brilliant theoretical work, shared this year's $879,000 prize with two experimentalists, Horst Stormer at Columbia University and Daniel Tsui at Princeton University.

Separately, the chemistry prize went Tuesday to Walter Kohn of UC-Santa Barbara and John Pople at Northwestern University for devising ways to calculate mathematically how chemical bonds among atoms form and change.

Laughlin was a post-doctoral student at Livermore lab when he published the first explanations of that work that eventually would earn him his Nobel Prize, but his work on the "fractionalized quantum Hall effect" was spurred by earlier research at Bell Laboratories.

One day in 1982, Laughlin walked into the research area he shared with physicists Dave Boercker and said he had solve the Hall effect, a physical phenomena researchers could not explain.

"He was basically doing this on his lunch breaks and stuff," said Boercker, who heads the condensed matter physics division at Livermore lab.

"I witnessed a little bit of history."

The astonishing discovery that led to this year's physics prize hinged, indeed, on the Hall effect, discovered in 1879 by Edwin Hall. It is a peculiar "sideways" force exerted on an electric current when placed in a strong magnetic field.

In the 1980s, physicists discovered this "sideways current" increased in discrete steps, like steps in a staircase, rather than continuously.

Then, in 1982, Tsui and Stormer discovered the electrons in these currents can create new particles with unheard of fractional electric charges.

Withint a year of their discovery, Laughlin explained how this could happen.

In effect, he postulated that the electrons in the Hall current condense into a kind of super-calm fluid.

The fluid is trapped inside very high magnetic fields at very low temperatures and squeezed into tow-dimension space, creating a new kind of vacuum.

When this vacuum is perturbed, the surface erupts in "excitations," like breakers on a still pond.

These excitations are the new kinds of particles, known as quasiparticles. The fact that these fractional particles can appear of out "nothing is unprecedented in physics.

These quasi-particles, said the Nobel committee, "are not particles in the normal sense, but a result of the common dance of electrons in the quantum fluid."

While the Hall effect may sound esoteric, it's of fundamental importance to virtually all areas of physics from the tiniest particles to the universe at large. Discoveries in all these fields will depend on the properties of empty space.

The fact that fractional charges can "come ouf of nothing," said Laughlin, may help shed light on other basic puzzles as well.

For all of Laughlin's status today, his breakthrough came at one of the most difficult junctures of his career.

As a post-doctorate fellow at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, he did impressive theoretical work but was passed over for a staff job at the prestigious institution.

In that moment of crisis, he began working on the side on the theory behind the experiment by Stsormer and Tsui.

"By happy luck, I had time on my hands because I was out in what they call the 'cooler,' waiting for my security clearance to come," Laughlin said Tuesday.

I had people passing through who knew plasma physics. That turned out to be a godsend. They taught me the mathematics I needed to see the solution."

Laughlin went on to Stanford in 1985 where he pursued further research on the quantum Hall effect. Laughlin continues to work part-time at the lab and send his student there.

Bob is outspoken. He is one of those people who, when he is in a meeting, dominates the meeting," said Lawrence Livermore's associate director for physics, Dick Fortner, explaining Laughlin is not afraid to ask difficult questions.

He is a very brilliant and very intimidating person."

"He was one of the most provocative and funnest people here. I'm proud we shared in a small part of that," said Bruce Tarter, director of the Livermore Lab.

Laughlin thought the prize was his due. His mother, who accompanied him during the day, said he told her as a child that he palnned to win a Nobel.

The first to hear the news, though, was Laughln's son Todd, 13, who answered the 3:30 a.m. call from Sweden.

"Hey Dad," he called out, "there's some buy from Sweden who wants to talk with you."

"He was speechless," Tod said later. "He hugn up and started screaming. He didn't think he was going to win for a while."

Laughlin credits his breakthrough understanding to a basic insight.

"I believe that simple things, that exact things don't happen for complicated reasons. And an experiment that accurate had to happen for a simple reason. This is what I call physical reasoning."

But his grand theory immediately prompted a backlash from leading physicists in the field. For five years, said Aharon Kapitulnik, chairman of the applied physics department at Stanford, they tried to counter with rival theories and failed.

Theorists fascinated with the mathematical reasoning found his ideas "repugnant," Laughlin said. "I knewe the big idea was right."

At Stanford, where peer pressure can be intgense, Laughlin said it was a relief to be recognized for his work.

"It's kind of like you're the only kid on your block not to have one," he said.