October 9, 2003

Argonne scientist Alexei Abrikosov wins Physics Nobel

After multiple nominations, Alexei Abrikosov, a scientist at the Argonne National Laboratories, received the Nobel Prize this week for his work developing the concepts of superconductivity and superfluidity more than a half century ago. Abrikosov shares the honor—along with $1.3 million in prize money—with two colleagues, Anthony Legget and Vitay Ginzburg.

Abrikosov received a letter in May notifying him of his nomination, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists called him on Monday to tell him he had won the award.

"One has to get accustomed to that," Abrikosov said at a University press conference on Tuesday, referring to winning the Nobel Prize. "I feel as before but thrown out of my conventional situation."

The Nobel-winning research centered on developments made in the field of superconductivity, or the ability for electricity to pass through certain materials without resistance, usually at incredibly low temperatures. Abrikosov discovered the "type-II superconductor" and its magnetic properties-—now called the Abrikosov vortex lattice.

In addition to its vast theoretical significance, Abrikosov's research has led to several practical applications, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and cell phone reception technology.

At the time of his initial research in superconductivity, however, Abrikosov said that his peers overlooked and even scorned his ideas. His remarks implied that winning such a prestigious award for this work came as the final vindication for persevering during his early years as a scientist.

"If a person does something unusual, then people will have [a] problem getting accustomed to it," Abrikosov said. "It will take a long time [for the idea] to get realized. For some, it might be too long."

The press conference was held in the Tribune Lounge in the Reynolds Club, and several members of Chicago's news media were on hand to listen to the laureate speak. University President Don Randel opened the conference with short remarks congratulating Abrikosov and expressing his pride for the work done at Argonne, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory affiliated with the University and located approximately 30 miles southwest.

"[This award] is a major testimony to the quality of science that our laboratories represent and that the University fosters," Randel said.

Professor J.M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize in literature last week, declined a similar press conference for himself, according to administrators.

After several colleagues briefly expressed their admiration, Abrikosov came to the podium and spoke for about half an hour about his work, his relationship with the University, and his departure from the former Soviet Union. A short, stocky man dressed in a dark suit and a tie bearing the American flag, the esteemed physicist mused on these subjects in a thick Russian accent, drifting from one topic to another with few prepared statements.

"I have always believed there is not a Russian science or other country's science. Especially in physics, which is a very international science," Abrikosov said. "I meet more Russian scientists here than I did in Russia."

Abrikosov's co-workers were full of praise for his accomplishments, and conveyed a deep respect for him both as a scientist and as a person.

"He's such an intellectual man; he understands immediately what one's saying," said George Crabtree, division director of the Material Science Division of Argonne Laboratories, the section in which Abrikosov works. "He also has the manner of a gentleman and loves his family very much."

In addition to superconductivity, Abrikosov's career has covered a wide range of fields, including quantum electrodynamics and astrophysics, in which he studied the properties of hydrogen planets, according to an Argonne press release.

Abrikosov is a member of numerous scientific organizations and has won many awards before the Nobel, the most prestigious of which was the Lenin Prize in 1966, Russia's most important scientific honor. He joined Argonne lab in 1991, shortly after coming to the United States.