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Stanford applied physicist receives Franklin medal

Physicist Robert B. Laughlin, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, is one of three scientists to receive this year's Benjamin Franklin Medal in physics from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Laughlin, along with Horst L. Stormer from Bell Laboratories in New Jersey and Daniel C. Tsui of Princeton University, was honored for the discovery and explanation of a bizarre, liquid-like behavior of electrons at extremely cold temperatures and high magnetic fields called the fractional quantum Hall effect.

In 1982 Stormer and Tsui discovered this effect when they sandwiched together two dissimilar semiconductor wafers and cooled them to very low temperatures in the presence of a strong magnetic field. They discovered that certain magnetic field strengths, the electrons in the material behaved as if they had a fractional charge, something that is physically impossible.

Laughlin figured out that the magnetic field was creating microscopic vortices in the material's electrical field that became filled with electrons that form a quantum liquid with unusual characteristics, including fractional charges. It was the movement of these vortices that produced the effect that Stormer and Tsui had discovered. Since then Laughlin has been applying the insights that he has gained from explaining this effect to high-temperature superconductivity.

"The Benjamin Franklin Medal is intended to honor . . . pioneering work, which not only explain[s] a particular phenomenon, but also opens up a new realm of scientific inquiry," according to the Franklin Institute.

This year the institute awarded a total of four such medals in the fields of physics, chemistry, engineering and life sciences. Previous recipients of the physics medal, which has been awarded since 1825, include Marie and Pierre Curie, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein. The institute was founded in 1824 to promote scientific inquiry and recognize scientific achievement.


By David F. Salisbury

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