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 Examiner
Tuesday, October 13, 1998

Stanford Physicist Wins Nobel

Shares prize with 2 others for research into the behavior of electrons

Stanford University physicist Robert B. Laughlin's bedroom phone was on the fritz so it was left to his 13-year-old son Todd to answer the 2 a.m. phone call.

"My son has a Mickey phone in his room and he answered it finally and woke me up, saying, 'Hey, dad, there's some guy from Sweden on the phone,'" Laughlin said Tuesday morning.

The news was that Laughlin, 47, and two other physicists working in the United States won the Nobel Prize on Tuesday for their discoveries of how ordinary electrons interact to make the universe work the way it does.

It was the second year in a row a Stanford physicist has won the Nobel Prize. In 1997, physicist Steven Chu of Stanford shared the prize for his work on the use of lasers to trap and cool atoms.

Stanford physicist Martin L. Perl shared the Nobel in 1995. Stanford economist Myron Scholes also won a Nobel last year, giving the university's faculty 10 Nobel laureates.

Named in Stockholm to share the $978,000 prize with Laughlin was Horst L. Stormer of Germany and Daniel C. Tsui, a native of China who is now an American citizen.

Stormer is at Columbia University and Tsui teaches at Princeton.

The Nobel committee's citation said the physicists' work marked "yet another breakthrough in our understanding of quantum physics and to the development of new theoretical concepts of significance in many branches or modern physics."

Mansour Shayegan, a colleague of Tsui's at Princeton, said all three "have done wonderful work."

"They have essentially discovered a new form of condensed matter," he said.

The prize recognized work that Tsui and Stormer did together in 1982 at Bell Laboratories and that Laughlin, who had just left Ball, advanced in 1983.

Laughlin, Stormer and Tsui discovered that ordinary electrons acting together in strong magnetic fields and very low temperatures can form new types of composite particles, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. Subsequently, other researchers have confirmed their experiments and directly observed these new composites, known as quasiparticles.

According to the citation, the three discovered a new form of "quantum fluid." such as liquid helium, that have certain properties in common, including superfluidity.

What makes these fluids important to researchers is that they can reveal more about the general inner structure and dynamics of matter.

The trio's work built on experiments performed by German physicist Klaus von Klitzing, who received the Nobel prize in 1985.

Mats Jonson, a physics professor at Sweden's respected Chalmers Institute of Technology, said the laureates' work could lead to improving computer memories by manipulating electrons in this altered state.

The development of microelectronics has allowed other researchers to confirm the work's validity in experiments the Academy likened to "measuring the sound of individual hailstones during a hailstorm."

Laughlin strongly disagrees with speculation about computer and other technological gains as a result of his team's discovery.

Pretty Much Hype

"I think that's pretty much hype and I disagree with it." Laughlin said in an interview. "But how is the utility of a thing determined? The right answer is that private capital takes the ball and runs with it. It's very often difficult to make the link between a fundamental discovery and (an eventual) product."

Although he said there may be eventual technology applications of his discovery, Laughlin said, "That's not the reason the things important and that's not the reason it won the Nobel Prize."

The real importance is that the discovery gives scientists a clearer picture of how matter, and therefore the universe, works.

"What is the nature of the universe in which we live?" Laughlin said. "The empty space in front of your eyes is full of stuff...(and) the precise nature of this stuff is not known. The alleged empty space in which we move is more like a pane of a window glass than a vacuum. There's matter there..." and how that matter works is important.

"It's known the matter is there but why it has the properties it does just isn't known."

His team's discoveries move scientists closer to understanding those properties and their interactions and, thus, closer to understanding the nature of the universe, he said.

"The reason why this is important is that it has to do with why the universe is the way it is," he said. "You can chop (the universe) to pieces or learn how all the pieces work together. This is a triumph of the second."

Laughlin is native of Visalia and got his doctorate in physics in 1979 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been a professor of physics at Stanford since 1989.

Previous Prizes

Laughlin previously has won the 1986 Oliver E. Buckley Prize from the American Physical Society and earlier this year the Medal of the Franklin Institute for his work associated with fractional quantum physics.

He, his wife, and sons Todd, 13, and Nat, 15, live on the Stanford campus. His wife "is very level-headed" and took the Nobel in stride, Laughlin said. He didn't know yet his teenagers were reacting. "If I were a teenage kid and my dad got the Nobel, it would sort of flip me out," he said. "I kind of worry about that. Maybe we'll go camping this weekend,"

He himself went "completely bananas" when he learned he won, Laughlin said. Son Todd went back to bed.

Laughlin is already in great demand as a speaker at scientific meetings and the award will make that worse, he suspects. "I'm already on airplanes constantly... (and) almost don't have time to think," he said. "All that stuff will get worse although it couldn't possibly.

"I am hoping to use this as a soapbox to tell people hoe really fantastic nature is and to drive home the idea that there are new things in the world all over the place, if you only have the eyes to see them," Laughlin said.

His sharing of the money will help his research and possibly also attract badly needed research funds for further studies, he said. Noting severe government cutbacks in funds for research, Laughlin said, "I'm really hopeful that this will help (the researchers) down in the trenches get some extra money."

Last year's physics laureates, Chu, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of France and William Phillips of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersberg, Md., were honored for developing ways of trapping atoms of gas and cooling them to within a millionth of a degree of absolute zero.

The work led to developing extraordinarily accurate atomic clocks. Previously atomic clocks weren't exactly sloppy, being accurate to about one second every 32 million years - but the improvements made possible a clock that loses just one second every 3 billion years.

It also lead to the creation of an entirely new form of matter, achieving new form of matter, achieving what Albert Einstein had postulated was possible 70 years earlier.

On Monday, the medicine prize was given to three Americans - Robert Furchgott, Louis Ignarro and Ferid Murad - for their work on discovering properties of nitric oxide, a common air pollutant but also a life-saver because of its capacity to dilate blood vessels.

Furchgott, 82, is a pharmacologist at the State University of New York Health Science Center at the Brooklyn ;Ignarro, 57, is at UCLA; and Murad, 62, is at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston.

Lead to Viagra

Their finding helped lead to the discovery of the anti-impotence drug Viagra and could also pay off in new treatments for heart disease, cancer and septic shock.

The literature prize was awarded last Thursday to Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. The economics prize winner is to be named on Wednesday and the peace prize on Friday.

All the prizes are announced in Stockholm, except for the peace prize, which is given in Oslo, Norway. The prizes are presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite who established the prize in his will.