IBM100: Remembering 1987 Nobel Prize for physics

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Editor’s note: Guest author Paul Grant was manager, Cooperative Phenomena Group and Coordinator of High-Tc Research at IBM Research — Almaden.

On an October afternoon in 1987, a team of IBM researchers at the Almaden Research Center, received impromptu attention on national television — for their work in physics.

The Nobel Prize in Physics had been awarded to Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Mueller of IBM’s research laboratory in Zurich for their discovery of high temperature superconductivity in copper oxide perovskites (the year before, their colleagues Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer earned the Nobel Prize for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope).

A number of Almaden scientists had also been working on these new materials for months when, in March of ’87, they discovered the atomic structure of the first material to superconduct above the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Previous to this discovery, liquid nitrogen was used as a cheap cryogenic agent made from air and commonly used by dermatologists to treat skin blemishes.

IBM quickly organized a press conference in the lab. The attending Silicon Valley media outlets watched IBMer — and my daughter — Heidi Grant lead a demonstration of levitating a magnet over a pellet of the new superconductors. Reporters even jumped and back-pedaled when excess liquid nitrogen spilled across the floor — which they asked her to repeat several times for the cameras.

After the spectacle of Heidi spilling the liquid nitrogen over and over again for the press, I remember our PR manager, Kay Keeshan saying in jest “thank goodness there isn’t any other news to report!”

Photo caption:

IBM Researcher Heidi Grant demonstrating superconductivity at the US National Science Foundation.

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