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.

San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, 14 October 1998

A Nobel Effort at Stanford

Physics prof wins for breakthrough quantum theory

By Carl T. Hall and Bill Workman

Robert B. Laughlin of Stanford University won the Nobel Prize in physics yesterday for a groundbreaking explanation of a bizarre sideways dance performed by ensembles of electrons trapped in a two-dimensional space.

Two other physicists, Horst L. Srörmer of Columbia University and Daniel C. Tsui of Princeton University, shared in the prize for earlier experiments that set the stage for Laughlin's work.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences also awarded Nobels in chemistry yesterday to scientists at U.S. universities for pioneering work in quantum theory.

Walter Kohn at the University of California at Santa Barbara and John Pople of Northwestern University in Chicago, both prominent in the field of computational chemistry, were recognized for developing new tools to predict the behavior of chemicals.

Each Nobel comes with a cash award of $978,000, shared by the winners in each category. It is the fourth year in a row that a Stanford physicist has won the honor.

Laughlin learned of the award from his 13-year-old son, Todd, who fielded the call from Sweden on a Mickey Mouse phone in his room.

A Nobel favorite for years, Laughlin joked that he had begun to feel "kind of like being the only kid on the block who doesn't have one" after working among such past Stanford laureates as Steven Chu, Douglas Osheroff and Martin Perl.

Laughlin, 47, was honored for starling insights published in 1983 while he was a staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and which developed from work he did at the old Bell Labs.

His theories followed the experimental findings of Tsui and Störmer, which had set the physics world abuzz by establishing a so-called fractional quantum Hall effect - where groups of electrons act as if they are quarks, or fractions of a single electron.

The work has since become a keystone of a new field of quantum physics, distantly related to a classic discovery in 1879 named for physics pioneer Edwin Hall.

"There were a lot of implausible explanations," recalled Laughlin's longtime colleague, Livermore physicist Stephen Libby, "and then Bob came out with his gorgeous and obviously brilliant explanation."

In almost any introductory physics class, students learn that electrons moving along a strip of metal will deflect sideways if subjected to a magnetic charge operating perpendicular to the strip. This sideways move puts more electrons on one side than the other, creating a charge.

The stronger the magnetic field, the higher the charge. The physicist Klaus von Klitzing, who on the Nobel in 1985, applied the principle of quantum physics to show that under special conditions of two-dimensional space, the same particles would move in a stair stip fashion.

In essence, each "jump" was equivalent to a single electron's "unit charge." The Tsui-Störmer experiments that won the shared Nobel took that a step further, showing that under colder temperature and higher-powered magnetic fields, the electrons could move in steps within the steps.

Because there was no actual splitting of any electrons into even smaller particles, no theoretician could explain it until Laughlin came along.

"It was incredibly puzzling. It was a totally puzzling result," said Richard Fortner, head of the physics lab at Livermore.

The theory took quantum mechanics to new plateaus, unleashing a bizarre new vocabulary that is still puzzling enough to anyone unfamiliar with such concepts as "composite bosons" and "magnetic flux."

The practical utility of such fundamental discoveries is yet to be made clear, either, although experts insist that such advances as super-efficient computers and power-generation are coming.

Laughlin, a self-taught composer and pianist who frequently takes friends and family hiking near his cabin in the Sierra, seemed perturbed yesterday by repeated questions as to the usefulness of his work.

Colleagues noted that Laughlin has long maintained a fierce advocacy for basic research.

"It's not going to make technology tomorrow, although I could be wrong about that," Laughlin told reporters yesterday. "Our business is finding what is truth and distinguishing what is not true."

He decried those who might abandon support of the kind of theoretical research that he and his Nobel colleagues have been encouraged to pursue.

"I, for one, am very pessimistic about the chances for even one generation younger than I to have the opportunity to be where I am today," he said.

The chemists who were honored yesterday won for work considered more clearly linked to product payoffs, such as making the process of drug discovery less reliant on painstaking experiments to find out how certain molecules behave.

Work by Pople, in particular, laid a foundation for the modern pharmaceutical industry, said Peter Kollman, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco's School of Pharmacy.

"There are probably 2,000 people who do this now in industry and at universities, and they all rely on the work that he did," Kollman said.