Stormer Wins '98 Nobel Prize

Photo: Queen Silvia and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, right, at the Nobel ceremonies, with Horst Stormer, left, and Dr. and Mrs. Robert Laughlin, center.
 



When Horst Stormer was a boy, he and his brother constructed elaborate sand castles, complete with moats and bridges. In December 1998, at the age of 49, he dined in a palace and conversed with a Queen-he had joined the Nobel nobility.

One of three 1998 Nobel laureates in physics, Dr. Stormer participated in what he termed "a fairy tale for a week." The new Columbia professor, who has a joint appointment in applied physics and physics, shared the Nobel prize with Prof. Daniel Tsui of Princeton, and Prof. Robert B. Laughlin of Stanford. Drs. Stormer and Tsui discovered the fractional quantum Hall effect, and Dr. Laughlin devised the theoretical explanation for its existence.

Dr. Stormer's fairy tale week in Stockholm, Sweden, began in a winter wonderland. "It had snowed overnight and so when I looked out of the hotel, it was gorgeous: the view of the water, the Palace, the streets, everything glistened. It was all lit with candles because the sun doesn't come up until about 10 a.m. It was just beautiful."

In the week of formal dinners and ceremonies honoring their accomplishments, Dr. Stormer singled out the dinner at the Royal Palace as the most exciting.

"The dinner was for the Nobel laureates and there were about 100 guests all seated at one long table, with huge candelabra every few feet. Every guest received a scroll, which was the seating chart. I unrolled it and was astonished to see that I was seated between the Queen and Princess Lilian, the King's aunt. The Queen is very charming. She speaks some six or seven languages and it was wonderful talking to her and to her aunt, who is well known for having a great sense of humor. I hardly remember what I ate."

"In Sweden, the Nobel is like the Super Bowl," says Dr. Stormer. The ceremony is televised live and the whole country watches. Dr. Stormer's wife, Dominique Parchet, was interviewed the night of the awards ceremony. He says, "The laureates are the center of everything. It's good fun. Traffic is stopped and the limousines arrive at the Concert Hall, and music is playing. Everybody is dressed in white tie or long gowns, even the reporters."

The Nobels are awarded in the order in which the prizes were established: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and economics. Drs. Stormer, Tsui and Laughlin received their awards first, and were cited "for their discovery of a new form of quantum fluid with fractionally charged excitations" that taught us a new implication of quantum physics.

They showed that electrons acting together in strong magnetic fields and at extremely low temperatures-close to absolute zero-create new particles with a charge smaller than the charge of any individual electron.

The fractional quantum Hall effect, what Dr. Stormer describes as a "counterintuitive physical phenomenon," takes place in two-dimensional electron systems of a very thin layer of a semiconductor when it is placed in a very high magnetic field. Dr. Stormer explains, "As the temperature approaches absolute zero, the electron appears to break up into three identical pieces, each with a fractional charge. This occurs because the electrons are dancing an intricate quantum-mechanical dance. Dr. Stormer with a sketch of a semiconductor structure behind him on the blackboard.

The new fractionally-charged particles are the results of a game played by many electrons. None of the electrons have broken. It is weird, but true."

When asked what the applications are of his discovery, Dr. Stormer says, "My honest answer is that I cannot think of an application. However, the material that shows this counterintuitive effect is the same material from which the telecommunication industry fabricates today's highest speed-lowest noise transistors. You may have one in your cell phone. We invented this new material in 1978 at Bell Labs and it led to wonderful physics and at the same time to important applications."

Dr. Stormer came to Columbia from Lucent Technologies, via Bell Labs, where he began his career in 1977. Modulation-doping, the technique to generate ultra-high mobility two-dimensional electron systems, gained him a permanent position at Bell Labs. Daniel Tsui was also at Bell Labs, already recognized as an expert in research on two-dimensional electron systems.

Together they embarked on their Nobel-prize winning discovery when they took an exceptionally high quality, low electron density specimen, contacted it electrically and put it in one of the magnets at MIT's Francis Bitter High Magnetic Field Lab. They were looking for signs of an electron crystal but they discovered the fractional quantum Hall effect.

From the heady years of pure research that followed his discovery, Dr. Stormer moved into science management, supervising more than 100 researchers in eight departments as Director of the Physical Research Laboratory at Bell Labs. While the time for his own research lessened, he felt compensated by the satisfaction of becoming exposed to a wider range of research topics.

By 1997, he felt the need to devote more time to research. He stepped down as director and, a few months later, joined the Columbia faculty while still continuing as a consultant at Bell Labs. His laboratory in the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research is under construction, but he has made himself at home in an office next door.

"I came to Columbia to help bridge the differences between industry and academia. It is not easy but it's worthwhile."

Last semester, he taught a seminar for juniors and seniors on topics ranging from condensed matter physics to technology to semiconductors. The seminar was open to students in the Physics and Applied Physics Departments.

"There were theoretical applied physics majors and more practically-directed physics majors," he said, "At this level, there is not that much difference between applied physics and physics."

"The seminar gives the student an opportunity to present a topic to their peers. It lets them explain what is exciting about the subject they chose and fosters interaction and gets them talking with each other. My role is to help with the choice of the subject, to make recommendations as to the presentation, and to expand beyond what has been presented."

"I like teaching," he said. As for the students, they like being in his class. One commented that Dr. Stormer was an excellent teacher while another commented that it was an interesting class that promoted critical thinking skills and enabled students to have an understanding of difficult concepts. Another called it "physics for fun and profit" and said the seminar was very interesting and well worth his time.

For those who talk to Dr. Stormer, or who have heard him speak to students at events such as Engineering Weeks, it is obvious that he is both approachable and has a great sense of humor, qualities that he brings to his teaching.

In spanning the narrowing gap between industry and academia, Dr. Stormer sums up the aim of his teaching. "My goal is to help students find their way, to find the area within physics that they get really excited about. Only if you are really excited about a subject will you do outstanding research," he said.

Originally published by Columbia Engineering News

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