1987 – High-Temperature Superconductors

Before 1987, if you wanted a superconductor you needed special equipment to cool exotic materials to temperatures near zero, a difficult and daunting challenge.  But following a discovery by Swiss scientists, a new class of materials was synthesized that became superconducting when cooled with liquid nitrogen.

And that’s where I had the great luck to come in, at the right place at the right time.

In 1987 I was a summer student working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Just weeks after this breakthrough, the head of the solid state theory department, Bill Butler, assigned my advisor Richard Ward and me the challenge to use their Cray supercomputer to theoretically model the electrostatic energy in these new compounds, as a first-step in understanding this superconducting behavior.  The mathematical formulas we used were huge but very well known, and even larger “black-board-sized” formulas were given to us by a very talented theoretician, Nancy Wright. As far as I know we became the first group to show a significant difference of the electrostatic structure between the “planes” and “chains” of atoms in these compounds. We thought this could be the smoking gun for the superconductivity.

This was an exciting time!  It was long before the Internet, so reports of the new experimental data were passed from group to group by fax, and as the important data such as crystal parameters became available, we updated and tuned our model.

The crowning highlight for me came when I received an award from the California State University for this work, and I was honored to give a talk about this work in the same lecture series previously (and thereafter) attended by many Nobel laureates, What Physicists Do.


Terrific people I worked with Richard Ward, Bill Butler, Nancy Wright, Thomas Delorey, Steve Peterson, and so many friendly colleagues and scientists I could not name them all
Great places I visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the then “top secret” nuclear weapons facilities X-10 and Y-12, sightseeing every weekend throughout the Southern US, experiencing the 17-year cicada explosion
New things I learned Research, Cray supercomputers, PC AT with 512 MB RAM,


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