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Mourning Phil Anderson

We say goodbye to theoretical physicist Phil Anderson, who helped to build the foundation for our understanding of condensed matter and superconductivity. 

07 April 2020

Last month we were touched by the death of Nobel laureate physicist Phillip W. Anderson at the age of 96, which was confirmed by his daughter. As Josep Fontcuberta, from the Magnetic Materials and Functional Oxides (MULFOX) group here at ICMAB, points out:

"Phil Anderson produced great contributions in many different contexts of condensed matter physics. I coincided with Prof. Ph. Anderson in a couple of physics conferences, one in San Francisco (USA) and another one, in Sitges (Barcelona). In both, I had the opportunity to discover not only a great scientist but also a very strong character.”

Anderson received his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977 in conjunction with Professor Sir Nevill F. Mott and Professor John H. van Vleck for “their fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems”.

“Anderson introduced the idea of disorder within a network with a periodic electrical potential and provedhow this disorder could induce electron localization and thus a transition to an insulating state. Our group has just recently been studying how the effects of disorder and electron localization trigger the appearance of an Anderson type metal-isolating transition in thin iridate layers.”

Says Benjamín Martínez, from the Advanced Characterization and Nanostructured Materials (ACNM) group. Xavier Obradors, ICMAB Director and researcher at the Superconducting Materials and Large Scale Nanostructures (SUMAN) group states:

"Phil Anderson inspired with his contributions in the theory of magnetism, superconductivity, and semiconductors, much of the work that is being made by the researchers at ICMAB. We are definitely indebted to him."

This knowledge stablished the foundation for the creation of several technological devices like the memories we use in modern computers. About his years in the Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he developed most of his research, Anderson stated: “We had a very high opinion of ourselves, but it was justified. Those were the years when we invented modern technology.”

This was not Anderson’s only accomplishment, as he had contributions in many fields. For example, in 1962 he developed important research on superconductivity, studying the ways in which photons gain mass inside in superconductors. This research laid the grounds for the prediction of the Higgs boson by Peter Higgs and its experimental discovery 50 years later.

Curiously, he opposed the construction of something like the Large Hadron Collider in Texas back in the 80’s, as he considered it would imply cuts in funding for other important research. In fact, he was cynical about some of the approaches in particle physics, stating in an article in 2006: “Particle theorists say [they are] discovering ‘the mind of God’. It’s not the mind of God at all. In the first place, there’s no God, and in the second place, particle physics cannot explain things like superconductivity, life and consciousness. It makes no contribution to explaining how the world actually works.”

Professor Phil Anderson’s more than four decades of research have been monumental for our comprehension of magnetism, conductivity, and condensed matter, and his legacy is still extremely relevant.

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