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.

Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, 14 October 1998

2 California Scientists Share Nobel Prizes

Discoveries: Awards in physics and chemistry go to researchers who shed light on inner world of atoms.

By K. C. Cole

Consolidating a remarkable winning streak for California, Nobe Prizes in physics and chemistry were awarded Tuesday to Stanford and UC Santa Barbara scientists.

Both prizes were given for work bringing to light the obscure inner world of atoms and making possible quantum leaps in the design of materials and drugs - work in which physics and chemistry are tightly intertwined. Indeed, the chemistry prize wen to a physicist and founder of UC Santa Barbara's Institute for Theoretical Physics, Walter Kohn, who shared the prize with John Pople of Northwestern University. Both developed techniques that have radically changed chemistry from a science of smelly sinks and foul fluids to rational design of tailor-made molecules on computers.

Surrounded by 100 UC Santa Barbara students in a building dedicated to him, Kohn said at a news conference Tuesday that he and his wife, Mara, were awakened about 5 a.m. with a phone call. "And we have not found our balance yet," he said.

Kohn said he was impressed that the Nobel committee was "broad-minded" enough to give the chemistry prize to a physicist. "You may think they made a mistake," he joked.

The physics prize, to be shared by Robert Laughlin of Stanford, Horst Stormer of Columbia and Daniel Tsui of Princeton, recognized the discovery of a completely unexpected behavior of common electrons. Under high magnetic fields and low temperatures, electrons can collapse into a quantum mechanical "fluid" that spontaneously produces strange "quasiparticles" out of empty space.

"The ordinary laws [of physics] do the strange things you could not predict in your wildest imagination," said Laughlin. In an interview, he added that he was pretty calm about the prize. "My wife screamed. I didn't." Still, he allowed that "Nobel prizes are neat, because they draw attention to science."

Laughlin is Stanford's fourth Nobel laureate in physics in a row. "I'm kind of numb," said Stanford physics Chairman Blas Cabrera. "I don't even know how to begin to make heads or tails of that."

The awards also illustrated how the most esoteric research can lead to practical discoveries, from designer drugs to new building materials. "These guys weren't out to make a better widget," said physical chemist Geraldine Richmond, a physical chemist at the University of Oregon, of the chemistry prize. "The widget just came out of their work."

Interdisciplinary Approach Used

Both chemistry laureates used knowledge about the smallest, most fundamental particles and forces to understand molecules behind every material substance from bricks to brains. "That interdisciplinary thinking really helps," said Richmond. "Both [chemistry laureates] had their feet in physics and chemistry. If they [hadn't], it's not clear [their work] would have been possible."

Essentially, an atom is a nucleus of heavy particles surrounded by clouds of infinitely elusive electrons. The precise behavior of the electrons is the key to all chemical reactions. Yet keeping track of their behavior, said Richmond, is rather like trying to write equations for the behavior of every child in a crowded classroom.

Kohn's work made it possible to understand the electrons buzzing around molecules by figuring out how to take "averages" of the electron's motion. "What Kohn did was figure out some very elegant shortcuts," she said. "He simplified the problem in a way that made it possible to move forward."

With the advent of powerful computers, chemists could use Kohn's simplification to design and manipulate molecules on their computer screens, moving "virtual" atoms around one at a time, and studying the properties of materials they created - without ever touching a test tube. "Without [Kohn's] work, it wouldn't be possible," said physicist David Gross, current director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics. Before Kohn's discovery, keeping track of the motions of all the electrons "seemed an impossible task."

Where Kohn simplified the mathematics involved, Pople was cited for developing computation methods that have become the basis of a whole new approach to chemistry - known as "quantum chemistry" or "computational chemistry." In effect, he created programs that were much simpler to use than anything previously available.

Both scientists, the Nobel committee said, made it "possible to calculate the properties of molecules and the interplay between them."

Like Kohn, Pople sees himself as a physicists or mathematician more than a chemist. In fact, he told Reuters, "I don't even have a degree in chemistry."

At a time when Washington increasingly asks scientists to justify their work with "practical applications," the prizes made a solid argument for the critical importance of fundamental research. Tailor-made molecules are already beginning to revolutionize everything from drug design to new materials to faster computers. Yet, Richmond pointed out, the discoveries came from "two individuals who were wedded to basic science, just trying to understand how molecules work."

Born in Austria, Kohn fled his home country on the very last children's transport out in the midst of the Holocaust. "I sort of by the skin of my teeth escaped this terrible, horrible tragedy of the Holocaust in which many of my family members did not escape."

He said he would like to think that his contributions to science are his way of "trying to help live [his lost family's] lives."

Kohn said his research has already helped to make some headway in the pharmaceutical industry with the development of new drugs and has the potential to help other scientists in their medical research and medical breakthroughs.

Stanford physicists Laughlin also emphasized the importance of basic research in claiming his prize. "I've determined that there is a fundamentally incorrect idea pervading Washington, that the purpose of expenditure [on science] is to create technology." He said he is determined to "fight this fight seriously," promoting the value of basic science.

Laughlin said he was relieved to get the prize. After all, three of his Stanford colleagues already had a Nobel, leaving him feeling like "the only kid on the block not to have one."

The physics prize, like the chemistry prize, was awarded for work rooted in quantum physics but applicable to everyday objects and events. This, in itself, is surprising. The strange subatomic goings-on of atoms are not visible to the eye, or even the microscope.

Indeed, knowing everything there is to know about a single particle or atoms does not necessarily shed light on the things they make up. As the late Caltech physicist Richard Feynman put it, knowing the equations that describe electrons in atoms does not reveal anything about "frogs, musical composers or morality."

Frogs and morality are what physicists call "emergent properties" of atoms - large-scale phenomena that cannot be predicted from their small-scale building blocks. (For example, thoughts cannot be understood in terms of individual neurons.)

Electron Mystery Is Explained

The astonishing discovery that led to this year's physics prize hinged on a similar phenomenon, know to physicists as the "fractionalized quantum hall effect." The Hall effect, discovered in 1879 by Edwin Hall, is a peculiar "sideways" force exerted on an electric current when placed in a strong magnetic field.

In the 1980s, physicists discovered that this "sideways current" increased in discrete steps, like steps on a staircase, rather than continuously. Then, in 1982, Tsui and Stormer discovered that the electrons in these currents can create new particles with unheard of fractional electric charges. Within a year of their discovery, Laughlin - in his prize-winning work - 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 two-dimensional 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 quasi-particles. The fact that these fractional particles can appear out of "nothing" was unprecedented in physics.

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

Although the fractional Hall effect may sound esoteric, it is 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 o the properties of empty space. The fact that fractional charges "can come out of nothing," said Laughlin, may well help shed light on other basic puzzles as well.

A recent meeting on the subject at UC Santa Barbara was the most oversubscribed they've ever run, according to UCLA physicist Steven Kivelson. "It's an extremely hot and interesting field, and these guys made singular contributions."

And although the fractionalized quantum Hall effect will no doubt lead to important applications in electronics and other fields, that's not why physicists are so excited. "It's of interest for fundamental physics, not cell phones," he said. "It's interesting for the same reason that discovering a black hole in the center of the galaxy is interesting. It's telling us something deep and fundamental about the nature of the world we live in."

Laughlin said he wanted to use at least some of his nearly $1 million in prize money (split three ways) to spread the word about the wonders of science. People are very supportive when they understand "how neat it is," he said. But the average citizens who pay for science "are not rich people. They need to be reminded of the real reason why they're paying."