Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ivar Giaever: The Mechanical Engineer Turned Physicist

I was a bit remorsed when I met a few participants of this Lindau meeting on the first day (28 July 2008). Most of them were theoretical physicists (quantum field theory stuffs, !!$?!+*?) and sometimes they tended to look down even upon solid state physics as sub par members of physics community. Gross, the man with a cigar in his photo, the Nobel laureate of 2004 seemed the man of everyone. Myself being an electrical engineer felt being selected for this program mistakenly by the Lindau council. It was no place for me. But as Ivar Giaever, Nobel Laureate of 1973, delivered his lecture I felt very dignified. By training, Giaver was a mechanical engineer!

Giaever is a very hilarious man. He is a Norwegian, and there are no participants from Norway. So he is not happy. He started his story of invention, the discovery of superconducting tunneling. Having graduated in 1952 from the Norwegian Institute of Technology as a mechanical engineer, he went to Canada and finally joined General Electric Company in USA. He has an interesting story on his getting the job at GE. Unlike in the US grading system, in Norweigian grading system the best grade is 1.0 and the worst is 6.0 and 4.0 is barely passing. He got 4.0 in both mathematics and physics in undergraduate! Luck turned on him and the interview committee at GE commented on his grade like this, ‘I see, you are very good in mathematics and physics, you got 4.0 in both.’ Giaever remembers that day, `Haven’t I been bad in mathematics and physics, there would be no Nobel prize for me.’ His works began with John Fischer at GE and he was asked to do experiments on tunneling phenomena in thin films. For Giaever, the classical mechanical engineer, how small balls like electron can pass through a wall without damaging the wall or itself! It was an enigma to him. He then went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy to study physics in 1958 where he had his first lessons on quantum mechanics and superconductivity. He finished his PhD in 1964. It was the class on superconductivity by Professor Huntington at RPI, when he started to get his miracle ideas. Blending his understanding of tunneling with the new gained knowledge on superconductivity he could think of an experiment to prove or disprove the existence of energy gap in superconductors, which was very crucial for the correctness of the new Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory of superconductivity. In a funny manner, he told that it is usually a dream to prove a famous theory wrong. Surpassing all speculations, their experiment proved the existence of energy gap in superconductors and hence the BCS theory. He felt like a physicist for the first time. He got his Nobel prize in 1973 along with Leo Esaki and Brian D. Josephson.

He shared with us some interesting events in his life. He wrote a letter to Bardeen (Nobel prize in physics in 1956 for solid state transistor and in 1972 for BCS theory) asking him about the Nobel prize awarding ceremony. Bardeen replied like this,

Dear Ivar,

The first time I got the Nobel prize, I did not take my family. I regretted that. Hence the second time, I went with my family. ….
So Giaever took his family to the Nobel ceremony.

About Josephson effect, he also did the same experiment. But he missed to notice the effect. In the last 35 years he has been asked many times whether he felt bad about it. `The answer is clearly no, because to make an experimental discovery it is not enough to observe something, one must also realize the significance of the observation, and in this instance I was not even close,’ Ivar answered.

He believes luck is the necessary ingredient for scientific discovery. But discoveries come only to prepared minds. His advice to the students was that, ‘Always go to the classes. You never know what you might miss and the pay offs might be sometimes very big.’ His idea of the experiement, indeed, came during Prof. Huntington’s class. As doing Nobel quality research, he has given 8 advices.
1. Be curious
2. Be competitive. Physicists are competitive.
3. Be creative.
4. Be stubborn. In his view, physicists are not nice people, they are rude. (But Laureate Philip D. Hall (2005) disagreed on the issue of physicists’ being not nice in the next session.)
5. Be self confident.
6. Be skeptical.
7. Be patient.
8. Be LUCKY!

The most inspiring part of his lecture for me, you do not need to be an expert to make scientific discovery. Often a newcomer to a field has a great advantage because he is ignorant and does not know all the complicated reasons why a particular experiment should not be attempted. He was once ignorant about the inappropriateness of the use of copper contacts to superconductors which, actually, made him a step forward. After him, everyone started to use copper as contacts to superconductors.

At last he presented a calculation the probability of getting a Nobel prize if we lived in USA.

1. There are 40000 physicists in USA.
2. On average each year one American scientist gets a Nobel prize in physics.
3. The probability of not getting the Nobel prize = 1 – 1/40000 = 39999/40000.
4. Average year of active research of a physicist in USA= 40 years
5. The probability of not getting the Nobel prize in life time = (39999/40000)^40=0.999.
6. The probability of getting one Nobel prize = 1 – 0.999 =1/1000

To Giaever, `That is, indeed, better than odds of winning in Lotto!’

Good luck all. I am very happy to meet an engineer Nobel Laureate who started quantum mechanics at the age of 29. Greats inspiration for us, the people with BS in engineering.

We will soon update you on our experiences with other laureates.

1 July 2008

15 comments:

Jubair Sieed said...

Really Inspiring story - so, after the devastating(!) performance in control-system & solid-state I can also hope for something big !!!

But according to the theory probability of getting a noble prize in Physics for any Bangladeshi is = 0 :(
I don't believe that, but someone needs to prove it :)

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