Superconductor and Superfluidity Theorists Win Nobel Physics Prize

9 October 2003—Three theoretical physicists have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on 7 October. The recipients, who worked independently, are Alexei A. Abrikosov, a Russian and U.S. citizen based at the Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, Ill.), the Russian Vitaly L. Ginzburg, of the P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow, and the British-born U.S. citizen Anthony J. Leggett, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They will share US $1.3 million in prize money.

In the early 1950s, Ginzburg came up with a fundamental theory that explained the interaction between superconductors and magnetic fields, which scientists believed always disturbed the superconducting properties of a material. Abrikosov advanced the theory, showing that certain superconductors, so-called type-II, could resist strong magnetic fields, a desired property for practical devices. Their ideas led to other fundamental contributions in the field, and today superconducting materials are used, for example, in magnetic resonance imaging equipment and in particle accelerators. Other potentially revolutionary applications include high-speed levitating trains, ultrafast computers, and highly efficient power lines and electric motors.

Just as electrons flow without resistance in a superconductor, a liquid can flow without internal friction when cooled to extremely low temperatures. In the 1970s, Leggett drew on ideas about superconductivity to explain the behavior of helium atoms in one kind of superfluid. He formulated a compelling theory explaining how the atoms interacted and became ordered in a superfluid state. Scientists say such understanding can provide deeper insight into how matter behaves in its lowest energetic state, and how the highly ordered arrangement characteristic of superfluidity can pass into chaos or turbulence when a disturbance occurs.

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