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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 October 2003, 13:55 GMT 14:55 UK
Nobel honours super-science
Three men will share the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physics for their pioneering contributions to the scientific theories that explain superconductors and superfluids.

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They are Russians Alexei Abrikosov and Vitaly Ginzburg, and the UK-born Anthony Leggett.

Superconductors are materials which, at extremely low temperatures, pass electricity without resistance.

Superfluids also operate at very low temperatures - just above absolute zero - and display no viscosity; if spun they turn without stopping.

Both are phenomena of quantum physics, which describes nature at the smallest scales.

Collectively, the men's work helped develop coherent theories for decades of experimental observations, leading to new understanding of the way in which atomic and sub-atomic particles behave.

High performance

Superconducting materials are made from metals, alloys and ceramic compounds.

Their lack of resistance has led to them being used to make powerful magnets, such as those found in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners which probe the body's tissues.

Atom smashers also use these magnets to hurl particles at each other to study the fundamental properties of matter.

Although the field has been plagued by hype, it does promise significant improvements in superfast computing and in the super-efficient generation, storage and transmission of electric power.

Alexei Abrikosov and Vitaly Ginzburg are honoured for their work in developing the theory behind so-called Type 2 superconductors.

These operate at higher, and therefore more practical, temperatures.

Atomic explanation

The properties of superfluids are just as unusual as superconductors.

When the gas helium is cooled to near absolute zero (-273 C; theoretically, the coldest anything can get), the liquid will flow without friction.

It can flow uphill in apparent defiance of gravity and, if placed in a container, will move up the sides and escape.

Superfluids are also used to study the fundamentals of matter and test major tenets of quantum physics.

Leggett is credited with formulating "a decisive theory" to explain how their atoms are ordered. Critically, the helium atoms are seen to work in pairs - just as in superconductivity, electrons work in tandem.

On the basis of Leggett's findings, more recent studies have examined how this type of order passes into chaos, which could give better insight into turbulence, one of the most common and complex problems in nature.

Astronomers are also interested in superfluids because they may help explain the behaviour of some of the more bizarre objects in the Universe. For example, Neutron stars, the ultra-compact bodies left over when massive stars explode, are thought to have rotation properties similar to those seen in superfluids.

Although now a US resident and citizen, Leggett was born and educated in the UK.

He told the BBC that he had not been expecting to receive the prize and was "dazed" to hear about it.

He had received an early morning phone call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, he said.

Stephen Cox, executive secretary of the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science, said: "This is the first time in 26 years that a UK scientist has received the physical sciences' most prestigious honour, so the society wants to congratulate Professor Leggett on this major achievement."

Abrikosov is part of the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois, US.

Ginzburg was the former head of the theory group at the PN Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow.

Large sum

Leggett is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also in the US.

The physics award came a day after Professor Sir Peter Mansfield and Professor Paul Lauterbur were awarded the medicine Nobel for their work in developing MRI.

Gunnar Oequist, Secretary-General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, called it a coincidence that the physics and medicine prizes touched similar areas.

"Certainly the MRI camera is a major application of [superconductivity] and I think it's an interesting coincidence that the medical prize goes to an application whereas [the physics] prize goes to the discoveries that made application development possible," he told the Associated Press.

The formal award of the Nobel Prizes will take place in Stockholm on 10 December.

The winners of each prize share 10 million Swedish kronor (1.1 million euro, 800,000, $1.3m), and receive a medal and a diploma.

The Nobel Prizes are named after the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Anthony Leggett
"A superfluid can flow through very narrow channels with essentially no friction."



SEE ALSO:
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06 Oct 03 |  Health
Coetzee wins Nobel literature prize
02 Oct 03 |  Entertainment
Cosmic particles scoop Nobel Prize
08 Oct 02 |  Science/Nature


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