3 split Nobel in physics for work on cold atoms

Prize honors discoveries in superconductivity and superfluid helium

October 08, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics yesterday for their theories on the behavior of very cold atoms - work that has already helped revolutionize medical treatment and could one day lead to vastly more efficient electrical devices.

Two of the researchers, both native Russians, explained the working of superconductivity, where certain materials chilled to extremely low temperatures lose resistance to electric currents.

The third physicist, born in Britain, solved the mystery of superfluidity, the quirky behavior of helium chilled to near absolute zero, minus 459.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Alexei A. Abrikosov, 75; Anthony J. Leggett, 65; and Vitaly L. Ginzburg, 87. Abrikosov is a Russian and American citizen based at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois; Leggett is a British and American citizen based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Ginzburg is a Russian based at the P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow.

Every year for the past 30 years, Ginzburg has been nominated for the prize, based on work that culminated in a groundbreaking paper on superconductivity published in 1950. "I was absolutely sure I wouldn't receive it," he said.

Then the phone rang yesterday in his narrow office at the institute, with its 9-foot-high tower of bookshelves crammed with papers and journals.

The caller said Ginzburg had finally won, but the scientist couldn't quite believe it. "Are you joking, by chance?" he said. Finally convinced, Ginzburg called his wife. But he told no one else, hoping not to create a stir.

By yesterday afternoon, the professor was surrounded by colleagues and reporters and photographers who crowded one of the hallways of the institute, with its scuffed wooden floors and dim fluorescent lights.

"How could they all have found out about it so quickly?" he wondered aloud.

The crush made him so nervous that, for a few minutes, neither he nor two other Lebedev faculty members could make the key work in his office door.

"Your hand isn't aching yet?" one colleague asked, pumping Ginzburg's hand in the hallway.

Abrikosov, 75, at the Argonne National Laboratory, built on Ginzburg's work. He explained the behavior of a type of superconductor that works even in the presence of a strong magnetic field, in papers published while he was still at the Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow in the late 1950s.

Abrikosov told reporters that all three scientists were united by the fact that their groundbreaking work was ignored by the Swedish academy for so long. "Now the Nobel committee probably decided to correct that thing, and to give us all three old scientists the Nobel Prize," he said from his home in Lemon, Ill.

Superconducting magnets are already used in a variety of devices, including the magnetic resonance imaging devices, called MRI machines. And scientists continue to hunt for a room-temperature superconductor. If one is developed, wire as thin as a human hair could carry a household's worth of electricity.

"Although these theories were formulated in the 1950s, they have gained renewed importance in the rapid development of materials with completely new properties," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement yesterday.

The third portion of the prize went to Leggett at the University of Illinois. In the 1970s he published papers on superfluid helium, which loses all viscosity and, under certain conditions, can enter a new state of matter - neither gas, solid nor liquid.

"I guess it had occurred to me that it was a possibility I might get the Nobel Prize," Leggett told wire services. "But I didn't think it was particularly probable."

When stirred, superfluid helium doesn't create a coherent vortex, as water in a glass does. Its ultra-slippery atoms swirl in place, like trillions of tiny rotating tops.

When held stationary, the substance has the strange property of climbing the sides of its container and spilling out, as though it were seeking to escape.

So far, no one has found many day-to-day applications. But scientists are studying superfluid helium to try to discover the rules that govern the development of turbulence. This question is, the Swedish academy said in a statement, "one of the last unsolved problems of classical physics."

Each winner will receive one-third of the $1.3 million prize - $433,000 before taxes. Abrikosov, who emigrated to the United States in 1991, said he might use the money to retire.

Ginzburg, a $90-a-month professor, has an apartment near the Lebedev Institute, a few minutes' drive south of the Kremlin, and a small dacha in the countryside. He said he wasn't sure what he would do with his winnings.

"I have grandchildren," he said. "Maybe I will give some to them."

Leggett, the youngest, said simply that he will continue to do research. "I have interesting work," he said. "I am happy."

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