Nobel Newspaper Articles

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

These are two of several newspaper articles related to Prof. Laughlin's 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics.

San Jose Mercury News
Wednesday, October 14, 1998

Fourmost in Physics

Laughlin's Honor Makes it Four Straight Nobel Winners for Stanford
by Michelle Levander

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

"God, I finally made it," the 47-year-old Stanford professor said under his breath as he shook hands all around him.

That moment captures both the prestige and the pressure at Stanford University as a member of its world-class physics faculty raked in yet another Nobel Prize - a stunning fourth in a row for the department. With the prize, Stanford edges past Harvard University for the most Nobel physics prizes in the world - nine in all. (Three of the four most recent laureates, including Laughlin, conducted their prize-winning work elsewhere.)

Laughlin, praised for his brilliant theoretical work, shared this year's $978,000 prize with two experimentalists, Horst L. Störmer at Columbia University and Daniel C. Tsui at Princeton University.

Their research showed that electrons in a powerful magnetic field can condense to form a new type of subatomic particle that acts as a quantum fluid.

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

Their achievements helped extend the mathematics of quantum mechanics to predicting specific chemical reactions and to designing molecules for use in medicine and other applications.

At Stanford, the news of yet another Nobel was greeted with glee.

"He was a member of what we call PNLs, the Pre-Nobel Laureates," said Stanford Professor Douglas Osheroff, who won a physics Nobel in 1996.

Even Laughlin thought the prize was his due. His mother, who accompanied him to the day's festivities, said he told her as a child that he planned to win a Nobel.

The first to hear the news, though, was Laughlin's son Todd, 13, who answered the 3:30 a.m. call from Sweden on his Mickey Mouse phone.

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

"He was speechless," Todd said afterward. "He hung up and started screaming. He didn't think he was going to win for a while.

Difficult Time

Still, for all of Laughlin's prominence today, his theoretical breakthrough came at one of the most difficult junctures of his career.

As a post-doctorate at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, Laughlin did impressive theoretical work, but he was passed over for a staff job at the prestigious institution. In that moment of crisis, he landed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

One the side, he began work on the theory behind the Störmer-Tsui experiment.

"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 in an interview 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 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."

Others Resisted

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

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

At Stanford, where the peer pressure in physics can be intense, 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.

As a youngster, it wasn't clear that Laughlin's career would be so promising. Growing up in the Central Valley, he said, he was "a terribly anti-social nerd" who like explosives and took up bomb-making as a hobby.

Today, among faculty members and students, Laughlin is known for his creative mind.

"He's a crazy theorist with a very creative mind, and that's probably why he did Nobel-quality work," physics graduate student Clarence Chang said.

Once, for a physics qualifying exam, Laughlin asked students to imagine launching a pot roast into space. Assuming that it is heated by wind resistance on its way back to the planet, at what altitude, he asked, would it be well done?

In another problem, he asked students to build a model for a roller coaster that could fit in the back yard. What, he asked, was the largest loop he could build without killing his kids because of excessive acceleration?

Laughlin describes himself as someone who doesn't slough off work on graduate students, a practice he says is common.

He keeps eccentric hours, awakening at 2 or 3 a.m. and going to sleep around 7 p.m. He used to work longer hours, he said, but now he takes care to make family a priority.

"I'm really paranoid about disintegrating my family," he said. "Everyone I know is divorced."

> Laughlin is also known for his temper.

Laughlin call is "politics", but one colleague says he wasn't hired at Bell because of his explosive personality.

"There was not doubt at Bell Labs he'd do important things. It was whether they could tolerate his character," said the colleague, who asked for anonymity.

Colleagues expect that the prize will help both Laughlin and the department.

Another Theory

Currently, Laughlin is battling the National Science foundation to get funding for research on his controversial theory on understanding the mechanisms behind high temperature superconductivity.

Burton Richter, a fellow Nobel laureate, expects the money will flow now for what he calls "that oddball thing he wants to do."

As a prize winner, Richter said, "you get the best students. As far as the department goes, it builds it reputation. Washington pays more attention to you when you want to talk about science or science policy, and your dean and president and provost pay a lot more attention to you, too."

Physics professors say it's no coincidence that Stanford has managed to build such an impressive physics faculty. It's a strength born of strife.

Back in the 1980s, physics professors in different parts of the university were divided by interdepartmental rivalries. Elite theoretical physicists looked down on applied physicists who wanted to study condensed-matter physics. And members of the physics department were reluctant to engage in interdepartmental cooperation because they feared getting swallowed by the monolith newly built on Sand Hill Road, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, said Kapitulnik and former applied physics chair Ted Geballe.

Two rival physics department heads, Alexander Fetter and Malcolm Beasley, decided to bring down the walls between them. The result, Kapitulnik said, was to create "a whole that is bigger than its individuals."

As part of the infusion of new blood in physics, the two department chairs brought in the three most recent Novel winners - Osheroff, Steven Chu, and Laughlin.

On Tuesday, Stanford News Service Director Alan Acosta reflected on Stanford's good fortune.

Laughlin, he said, appeared in advance on his short list of possible prize winners, "but after three in a row, it just seemed the law of averages was going to catch up with us."

A Huge Honor for Work in a Small World

Theory of Quantum Fluid Explained by Laughlin's Work
by Glenna Chui

Just when you think you have something nailed, someone comes along and proves you wrong.

That's how physicists felt about the developments that led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday to researchers at Stanford, Columbia and Princeton universities.

The award was for work done more than a decade ago in the field of quantum mechanics - the realm of the very, very small, where the workaday rules that govern ordinary life are tossed out the window.

The work demonstrated, among other things, that electrons confined in very narrow space can become a new form a matter in which they act collectively, like a fluid. Further, under certain circumstances, they sport a fraction of their usual charge of minus one, the counterpoint to the proton's plus one.

None of this has any practical application, physicists say, although the experiments have driven the development of more pure semiconductor materials.

Nevertheless, the research is important "for purely intellectual reasons," said Steven Kivelson, a physicists at the University of California-Los Angeles. "It's not something that's going to make cell phone work better. But it's for the same reasons we're interested in black hole, quarks, things like that. It's a very surprising, very deep phenomenon that effected something of a paradigm shift in the field."

'Really a Surprise'

The phenomenon is known as the fractional quantum Hall effect. Horst L. Störmer of Columbia University and Daniel C. Tsui of Princeton University got their Nobels for uncovering the effect in experiments. It was "really a surprise," said Bertrand I. Halperin, a physicist at Harvard University. "It was very puzzling. It was really hard to believe that such a thing could happen. We though we understood these systems."

A third Nobel went to Robert B. Laughlin of Stanford, who came up with a theory to explain their results. Halperin said the explanation involved radical new ideas that still reverberate through the world of physics, finding potential applications in areas from string theory to high-temperature superconductors.

It all started in 1879 when Edwin H. Hall send an electrical current flowing through a thin gold plate. When he put the plate in a magnetic field, some of the electrons were deflected off to the side. That created an electrical voltage perpendicular to the flow of the current. As he cranked up the magnetic field that voltage, which came to be known as the Hall voltage, increased accordingly.

A century later, scientists did similar experiments at very low temperatures and in much stronger magnetic fields. This time they used semiconductor materials, fashioned so the electrons were confined to a narrow plane.

Plotted Like a Staircase

As they increased the magnetic field, the Hall voltage did something strange. It also increased, but then leveled out; increased, leveled out. Plotted on a graph, it looked like a jagged staircase - not the smooth incline researchers expected.

It's as if you gradually turned up the heat under a pot of water and found that, for minutes at a time, the water stopped getting hotter.

The electrons, it turned out, were behaving according to the rules of quantum mechanics, which govern the world of the very small. Klaus von Klitzing, the German physicists who discovered this new, quantum Hall effect, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1985.

In a series of more refined experiments, Störmer and Tsui, who were then working at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, found that there were many tine steps between the original steps that marked increases in Hall voltages. They called this the [italics fractional] quantum Hall effect.

A year later, Laughlin came up with an explanation for it: The electrons were forming a quantum fluid, in which they behave not as individuals but as a sort of collective. This type of behavior had been seen before in liquid helium and in superconductors; work on superfluid helium earned another Stanford physicist, Douglas Osheroff, a Nobel Prize two years ago.

Laughlin predicted that when electrons are in this state they can, in some circumstances, behave as "quasiparticles" with charges that are a fraction of their normal minus one. Researchers in Israel and France have since observed quasiparticles directly and verified his ideas.