J. Robert Schrieffer, 88, Dies; Insight on Superconductivity Led to Nobel


J. Robert Schrieffer, who shared a Nobel Prize in Physics for figuring out how certain materials can convey electricity without resistance — a brainstorm that came to him while riding the New York City subway — died on July 27 in Tallahassee, Fla. He was 88.

His daughter Regina Schrieffer-Hafer confirmed his death, at an assisted living facility. No cause was given.

Dr. Schrieffer’s greatest accomplishment came as a graduate student in the 1950s, when he tackled the question of how electrical resistance disappears in certain materials known as superconductors.

Superconductors are used in the magnets of most modern magnetic resonance imaging machines and for accelerating protons at the particle accelerators that study the smallest bits of the universe. Conventional conductors like copper overheat when too much current is pushed through.

A Dutch physicist, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, first observed the phenomenon of superconductivity in 1911 in mercury that had been cooled to below minus-452 degrees Fahrenheit — about 7 degrees above absolute zero. Other physicists were astounded; it was as if they had come across a perpetual motion machine. Indeed, an electrical current running around a ring of mercury at 7 degrees above absolute zero would, in principle, run forever.

A pantheon of eminent 20th-century physicists — among them Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and Richard Feynman — all tried to find an explanation for this vanishing electrical resistance but came up empty.

But John Bardeen, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois, who had already won fame for his role in the invention of the transistor, was undeterred. He and members of his research group started working on different aspects of what would be needed for a workable theory.

Within a couple of years the group had solved pieces of the problem, including how electrons, which normally repel one another, could be mutually attracted and pair up. These were essential prerequisites for understanding the collective behavior of electrons within superconductors.

Dr. Schrieffer, a graduate student of Dr. Bardeen’s, came up with the final piece of the puzzle in early 1957. He was in New York City at the time attending a physics conference when he had his crucial insight while riding the subway.

What he came up with was a mathematical expression that described how the pairs of electrons coalesced into one large clump, allowing them to move together without scattering — that is, without generating electrical resistance. By his own account, he had begun to “scribble down” the solution while on the train.

That December the full explanation for the electrons’ behavior was published in the journal Physical Review with a simple title, “Theory of Superconductivity.”

The explanation is now known as B.C.S. theory, after the initials of the last names of the three scientists who wrote the article: Dr. Bardeen; Leon N. Cooper, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Bardeen’s group; and Dr. Schrieffer.

During a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the paper, in 2007, Dr. Schrieffer described his insight with an analogy to a line of ice skaters, arm in arm. “If one skater hits a bump,” he said, the skater is “supported by all the other skaters moving along with it.”

The three received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1972.

John Robert Schrieffer was born on May 31, 1931, in Oak Park, Ill., to John H. and Louise (Anderson) Schrieffer. His father was a pharmaceutical salesman who became a citrus grower in Florida.

After studying electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for two years, Dr. Schrieffer switched to physics and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1953. He completed his doctorate at the University of Illinois in 1957.

He worked at the University of Birmingham in England, the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois before joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1964.

He moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1984 and was director of the university’s prestigious Institute for Theoretical Physics. In 1992, he moved to the National High Magnetic Laboratory at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he was the lab’s chief scientist.

Dr. Schrieffer received the National Medal of Science in 1983. In 1996, he served a one-year term as president of the American Physical Society.

The B.C.S. theory of superconductivity turned out not to be a universal theory. In 1986, physicists discovered a new class of materials that also conducted electricity without resistance, at higher temperatures — a phenomenon that could not be explained by the earlier theory.

Again, all of the top theorists, including Dr. Schrieffer, weighed in with ideas, to no avail: The mystery of high-temperature superconductors remains unsolved.

In addition to his daughter Regina, Dr. Schrieffer is survived by another daughter, Anne Bolette McKin; a son, Paul; and four grandchildren. His wife, Anne Schrieffer, died in 2013.

Late in life, Dr. Schrieffer’s love of fast cars ended in tragedy. In September 2004, he was driving from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, Calif., when his car, traveling at more than 100 miles per hour, slammed into a van, killing a man and injuring seven other people.

Dr. Schrieffer, whose Florida driver’s license was suspended, pleaded no contest to felony vehicular manslaughter and apologized to the victims and their families. He was sentenced to two years in prison and released after serving one year.

Florida State placed Dr. Schrieffer on leave after the incident, and he retired in 2006.

Richard Klemm, a professor of physics at the University of Central Florida, who collaborated with Dr. Schrieffer on a research problem in the 1980s, said he had tried to contact him but did not hear back.

“He wouldn’t communicate with anyone,” he said. “He apparently didn’t want to have anything to do with his community any more after what happened.”

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