Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Madison native and UW grad who was the first person to win two Nobel prizes in the same field

Fifty years ago last month, the journal Physical Review published a paper titled “Theory of Superconductivity.” The authors were Leon N. Cooper, John Bardeen and J. Robert Schrieffer. Although superconductivity had been discovered early in the century, nobody knew how it worked. The problem had puzzled some of the best minds in modern quantum physics. It was a significant breakthrough, as a story in this morning's New York times recalls.
Superconductivity was discovered in 1911 by a Dutch physicist, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. He observed that when mercury was cooled to below minus-452 degrees Fahrenheit, about 7 degrees above absolute zero, electrical resistance suddenly disappeared, and mercury was a superconductor.

For physicists, that was astounding, almost like happening upon a real-world perpetual motion machine. Indeed, an electrical current running around a ring of mercury at 7 degrees above absolute zero would, in principle, run forever.

If the phenomenon defied intuition, it also defied explanation.

After wrapping up special and general relativity, Albert Einstein tried, and failed, to devise a theory of superconductivity. Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who came up with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, struggled with the problem, as did other pioneers of quantum mechanics like Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli. Felix Bloch, another thwarted theorist, jokingly concluded: Every theory of superconductivity can be disproved.
One of the authors of the paper, John Bardeen, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics the year before, for his work at Bell Labs as a co-inventor of the transistor. Bardeen was a Madison native who graduated from Madison Central High School in 1923 at the age of 15 and the University of Wisconsin in 1928. This year is the centennial of his birth.

When he was awarded the 1956 Nobel prize in Stockholm, Wikipedia relates that he was scolded by the King of Sweden.
Bardeen brought only one of his three children to the Nobel Prize ceremony. His two sons were studying at Harvard University, and Bardeen didn't wanted to disrupt their studies. King Gustav scolded Bardeen because of this, and Bardeen assured the King that the next time he would bring all his children to the ceremony.
His work on superconductivity resulted in his second Nobel Prize in physics, making him the first person ever to be awarded two Nobel Prizes in the same field. He did, in fact, take all three of his adult children with him to Stockholm in 1972 to accept the second award.

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