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.

Stanford Daily
Wednesday, 14 October 1998

Laughlin Awarded Nobel

Prize is Stanford's Fourth in a Row

By Dana Muhlhauser

"Dad, there's some guy from Sweden who wants to talk to you," Robert Laughlin's son Todd told him at 4 o'clock yesterday morning.

Based on recent Stanford history, Laughlin should have known who was calling.

When he picked up the phone, Laughlin learned that he was the fourth Stanford professor to win or share the Nobel Prize in physics in as many years.

Laughlin is sharing the award with Columbia Prof. Horst Srörmer and Princeton Prof. Daniel Tsui.

In 1982, using powerful magnets and low temperatures, Störmer and Tsui observed that electrons acting collectively in strong magnetic fields could form new types of particles with charges much weaker than electrons.

A year later, Laughlin succeeded in explaining their results. He showed that those lighter particles were in fact electrons that had been condensed to form a kind of quantum liquid, similar to those occurring in superconductivity and liquid helium.

Laughlin, the Anne and Robert Bass Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, is proud of his work not for its immediate usefulness but for its lesson that "the world is full of new things, things we don't understand."

The discovery, known as the Fractional Quantum Hall Effect, "is not going to make technology tomorrow," Laughlin emphasized. "The effect is so delicate, and rel-life technology requires things at room temperature that can get banged around and not be hurt."

University President Gerhard Casper noted that Nobel Prizes in Physics have become almost routine at Stanford.

Last year, when [Physics Prof.] Steve Chu won, I was in Stockholm, and people said to me, 'you are from the university where they give all the Nobel Prizes in Physics,'" Casper said. "Little did they know that that made only three in a row, and now we have four."

Laughlin admits that, while the award was a surprise, he "knew for a long time that these experiments were of history proportion."

Laughlin, who has been at Stanford since 1989, conducted the research that led to his prize at AT&T Bell Laboratories, as did Stanford's past two physics winners, Physics Prof. Steven Chu and Physics Prof. Doug Osheroff. The lab has diminished greatly in size and scope since the AT&T conglomerate was split up into the "Baby Bells" in 1984.

"Back when we were at Bell Labs ... the funding could be used for anything that was considered good science," said Osheroff. "Then, after Bell was split up, it became much more highly focused and you had to produce a product."

Laughlin laments the reduction of Bell Labs and other large, well-funded corporate labs such as Xerox and IBM.

"The benefits we're reaping today are from investments made long ago, and those same investments are not being made now," he said. "I'm pessimistic about people of the next generation being where I am now."

"I accuse my generation of allowing this to end," he emphasized.

The Fractional Quantum Hall Effect is "difficult to explain," according to Laughlin's postdoctoral physics student martin Greiter.

"Usually, in a system made of electrons, the electrons are also the elementary particles entering the field," he said. "In the Quantum Hall Effect, there is an instant where the electrons condense into a fluid ... An elementary particle in this system is like one-third of an electron. You start with one type of particle and end of with a fraction of that particle."

Casper also pointed out the international nature of this year's prize.

"Bob is a Californian, Störmer was born and educated in Germany, and Tsui was born in China and is now an American citizen. It shows how great American universities are attracting talent from all over the world, and I speak with all the authority of my accent," said German-born Casper.

Laughlin, 47, obtained his doctorate in physics from MIT in 1979. After working at Bell Labs from 1979 to 1981, he did research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1981 to 1982 before coming to Stanford,

The school's four consecutive awards "speaks to the strength of the sciences at Stanford and the importance of academic research," said Robert Bass, chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees, and the man for who Laughlin's endowed professorship is named.

Laughlin noted that he almost missed yesterday morning's phone call entirely.

"As my wife says, 'It turns out Mr. Physics Professor can't fix his phone,' because the one in our room hadn't been working for a while," he said.

After a few rings, his son picked it up on the Mickey Mouse-shaped phone in his room.

According to Laughlin, his third of the $978,000 prize is "about enough to buy some nice furniture."

As for next year, should another Stanford physics professor be expecting a call from Sweden in the middle of the night?

"When I came to Stanford, there were a number of PNLs, or pre-Nobel Prize winners, but now they've all gotten [the prize]," said Osheroff.

"But after all, you never know."