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Physics conference to celebrate 50 years of superconductivity theory

James E. Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor

Released 10/3/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It’s been hailed as one of the greatest discoveries in theoretical physics in the 20th century – a theory that has influenced essentially all areas of physics, from the structure of atomic nuclei to the cores of neutron stars. And it was developed by University of Illinois physicist John Bardeen, postdoctoral research associate Leon Cooper and graduate student J. Robert Schrieffer 50 years ago.

Published in 1957, the Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer (BCS) theory of superconductivity provided the first analytical solution to the problem of superconductivity. To celebrate the theory’s golden anniversary, scientists from around the country will converge on the U. of I. campus for a physics conference devoted to superconductivity.

The conference will be held Oct. 10-13 (Wednesday through Saturday) at the Beckman Institute, 405 N. Mathews Ave., Urbana. The conference is open to the public; a registration fee is required and seating is limited.

The conference will feature talks by eight Nobel laureates, including Leon Cooper, Tony Leggett and Steven Weinberg. In addition, physicists from the U. of I. and other universities will give talks on the history of BCS theory and on significant developments in physics that are based on the theory.

“It’s 50 years later, and BCS still stands as a singular contribution to theoretical physics,” said Philip Phillips, a U. of I. professor of physics and the chair of the conference organizing committee. “It’s a one-of-a-kind theory with an impact on essentially all areas of physics. Indeed, part of the beauty of BCS, apart from its seeming simplicity, is its true generality.

Superconductivity, the complete loss of electrical resistance in some materials, occurs at temperatures near absolute zero. First observed in 1911 by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, the mechanism of superconductivity remained unexplained until 1957, when Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer determined that electrons, which are normally repulsive, could form pairs and move in concert in superconducting materials below a certain critical temperature.

The three researchers were awarded the 1972 Nobel Prize in physics.

To commemorate the trio’s pioneering work in understanding the mechanism of superconductivity, the American Physical Society is designating the old Physics Building, 1304 W. Green St., Urbana, as a site of historic significance to physics.

On Oct. 11 (Thursday), Leo Kadanoff, the president of the APS and a former U. of I. faculty member, will present a bronze plaque to U. of I. Chancellor Richard Herman. The ceremony will take place at 5 p.m. in the auditorium of the Beckman Institute.

Also on Thursday, theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg will give a public lecture on the wide-ranging nature of BCS theory. The 7:30 p.m. lecture will be held in the Beckman Auditorium. Weinberg holds the Josey Regental Chair in Science at the University of Texas at Austin. For his work on the unification of electricity and magnetism with the weak nuclear force, Weinberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979.

Each day of the conference will be dedicated to different aspects of superconductivity, Phillips said. The first day will be devoted to the history and people behind the BCS theory. Current trends in superconductivity will be featured on the second day. The technological impact of BCS will be highlighted on the third day. The last day will feature the impact of BCS on other areas of physics.

For more information or to register for the conference, visit the conference Web site.

Editor’s note: To reach Philip Phillips, call 217-244-2003; e-mail: