After the Nobel,
the fractional quantum reportorial effect

A Nobel prize might seem to mark the end of the struggle to explain even the most arcane experiment in quantum physics. After all, physicists worldwide have understood and applauded the work.

But then you have to explain the research to reporters.

"Just the physical phenomenon itself is very hard to describe to reporters, and then it's very hard to describe by reporters to the layman," says Columbia professor of physics and applied physics Horst L. Stormer, one of three researchers sharing the 1998 physics Nobel. Stormer also holds an appointment as Adjunct Physics Director at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The strange world of quantum mechanics proves difficult to explain, even for Stormer. "Everybody's struggling with it, including the scientists," he says.

Stormer and fellow experimentalist Daniel C. Tsui, a Princeton physicist, performed the prize winning work at Bell Labs in 1982. Their work followed up on experiments begun in 1879, when American physicist Edwin H. Hall showed that a magnetic field applied across a thin metal plate produced a measurable electrical potential. In a 1980 refinement, German physicist Klaus von Klitzing found that smoothly increasing the strength of the field produced stepwise increases in the potential. Electrons seemed to be moving as units, or quanta, consistent with their single negative charge. Klitzing won the 1985 Nobel in Physics for demonstrating this integer quantum Hall effect.

But when Stormer and Tsui further refined the experiment, they got a surprising result. They used a novel semiconductor material--now used in cell phones--to trap electrons in a two-dimensional space chilled to near absolute zero. Ramping up the magnetic field now produced not integer steps in potential, but fractional steps, as if the electrons had split apart.

A year later, theoretical physicist Robert B. Laughlin of Stanford University explained Stormer and Tsui's strange results. He hypothesized that the electrons had condensed into a sort of fluid, with groups of electrons functioning as "quasiparticles," each exhibiting a fractional charge. Stormer, Tsui, and Laughlin shared the Nobel.

News coverage the day of the announcement tended to quote the Nobel Committee's citation, while later stories attempted with varying results to explain the work. Stormer says Malcolm W. Browne's lengthy article in the New York Times explained the science well, but the experimentalist took exception to the headline "5 Quantum Theorists Share 2 Nobel Prizes in Sciences." "We all were called theorists. That I was actually astonished about." Writers rarely come up w ith the headlines, but the headline often creates a crucial first impression.

Other writers, however, didn't get the science right. Adam Miller and Angela C. Allen, writing in the New York Post, stumbled in the lead paragraph with: " particles generated when electrons are subjected to low temperatures and high magnetic fields." And Virginia Breen, writing in the New York Daily News, wrote "Stormer's winning discovery found that big electrons, when thrown together, can form smaller units."

Many writers tried too hard to lend a practical bent to the story. Scientists think about practical uses, but understand how long the lab-to-product transition can take. Wolfgang Ketterle, John D. MacArthur professor of physics at MIT, says of the Nobel-winning discovery: "This is fundamental work, and it's a long haul from such fundamental work to applications." K.C. Cole, writing in the L.A. Times, stepped over the line, Stormer says. She wrote that the Nobel-winning findings were "applicable to everyday objects and events."

"That is quite a stretch, actually," Stormer insists. "I have pointed out repeatedly that I do not see an application of the fraction quantum Hall effect for quite a while, if ever."

Norman Christ, professor and chairman of Columbia's physics department, also emphasizes the importance of basic research. "I think all scientists, certainly physicists, at the moment are enormously sensitive that what we're doing be seen as for the greater public good. But we somehow have to do this in a way that emphasizes the importance of fundamental understanding and advances in basic science."

Stormer agrees. "Basic understanding of the world around us invariably has led us to some kind of applications, but just trying to understand the world around us is extraordinarily important." --Stephen Hart

Related links...

  • "Getting the Nobel Wake Up Call," Lucent Bell Labs

  • STEPHEN HART is a freelance science and medical writer whose work has appeared in ABC News Online and in BioScience, Discover, Science News, The Scientist, Patient Care, the Journal of Critical Care Nutrition, and 21stC, among other publications. He is the author of The Language of Animals (NY: Scientific American Focus Books/Henry Holt, 1996).

    Photo Credits:
    Nobel ceremony: AP/Wide World Photos