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October 13, 2003
Volume 81, Number 41
CENEAR 81 41 p. 13
ISSN 0009-2347


Theories of superconductivity and superfluidity garner physics prize


In the U.S., the only drawback of winning a Physics Nobel seems to be the sleep-shattering pre-dawn phone call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Abrikosov Leggett
Courtesy Argonne National Laboratory University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
When Anthony J. Leggett, one of this year’s three winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, answered the phone at 4:40 AM last Tuesday, it was the committee’s second attempt to reach him. “I slept through the first call—they left a message on the answering machine,” Leggett says.

Alexei A. Abrikosov, a distinguished scientist at Argonne National Laboratory who was awakened at 4:15 AM, has been nominated for a Nobel many times. But Abrikosov, 75, realized this might be his year when the Nobel committee informed him of his nomination in a letter last May. “They’d never sent me anything like that before, so I suspected this year would be somewhat different from others,” he says.

Leggett, 65, a physics professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Abrikosov will share the $1.3 million prize with 87-year-old Vitaly L. Ginzburg, former head of the theory group at the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow.

Their contributions to theories explaining the related concepts of superconductivity and superfluidity form a framework within which scientists can gain insight into the quantum behavior of matter, as well as examine and predict the properties of superconducting materials. In fact, superconducting magnets are key to magnetic resonance imaging, two developers of which received this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Scientists first explained superconductivity in the 1960s, discovering that, at only a few kelvins, electrons in metals could overcome their natural repulsion to form electron pairs that flow with no resistance. However, the superconducting effect collapses in the presence of strong magnetic fields.

In the 1950s, Ginzburg and Russian physicist Lev D. Landau laid the groundwork for explaining the macroscopic properties of superconductors. “It told you how to drive the car without needing to know what’s inside the engine,” says Marvin L. Cohen, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Scientists soon discovered another class of superconductors—type II, which includes ceramics and alloys—that retain superconducting properties even in the presence of strong magnetic fields.

Abrikosov used Ginzburg and Landau’s work as a springboard to show that in type II superconductors, quanta of magnetic flux could penetrate the material as an array of vortices without disrupting the superconductivity.

While practical uses for type II superconductors abound, the theory that describes superfluidity in systems like helium-3 is “pure intellectual delight,” UC Berkeley chemistry professor K. Birgitta Whaley says.

Like the electrons in type II superconductors, 3He atoms also can form pairs at very low temperatures—only a few millikelvins—that then flow with no viscosity. Superfluid 3He has applications, including very sensitive gyroscopes, that would be useful in physics experiments.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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Theories of superconductivity and superfluidity garner physics prize
[C&EN, Oct. 13, 2003]

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