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Absolute Hero: Heike Onnes's Discovery of Superconductors Turns 100 [Slide Show]

A century after the discovery of materials that conduct electricity without resistance, the applications remain disappointingly limited. That may be about to change
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THE IRON AGE OF SUPERCONDUCTORS

In 2006 Hideo Hosono (pictured) and his team at the Tokyo Institute of Technology were trying to create new materials for flat-panel displays when they stumbled on an entirely new kind of high-temperature superconductor.....[ More ]

THE WOODSTOCK OF PHYSICS:

Physicists crammed into a hastily arranged session at a 1987 meeting of the American Physical Society—a session that went on until 3:15 A.M. the next morning and became known as the "Woodstock of physics".....[ More ]

CRACKING THE PUZZLE:

In 1957 the U.S. physicists John Bardeen (who had already shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the transistor), Leon Neil Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer finally cracked the puzzle of superconductivity—a goal that had eluded minds of the caliber of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and Richard Feynman.....[ More ]

ONNES'S LOST NOTEBOOK:

"Mercury practically zero." Onnes wrote those words in his notebook at 4 P.M. on April 8, 1911, when his assistant Gilles Holst reported that at the temperature of 3 K the resistance in mercury dropped so low it could no longer be measured.....[ More ]

WHEN RESISTANCE DISAPPEARED:

This graph of how electrical resistance (vertical axis) depends on temperature (horizontal axis) shows the resistance of mercury suddenly dropping to zero at around 3 K.....[ More ]

THE CRYOGENIC APPARATUS:

This diagram details the system of cryogenic pumps and flasks built by Onnes and his assistant Gerrit Jan Flim; the capillaries holding mercury were made by the lab's master glassblower Oskar Kesselring.....[ More ]

HEIKE KAMERLINGH ONNES:

Onnes (1853–1926) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1913—not for discovering superconductivity but for liquefying helium. But it was his discovery of the former that made him famous.....[ More ]

THE LEIDEN CRYOGENIC LABORATORY:

Built by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and pictured here in 1895, the Leiden Cryogenic Laboratory was, in the words of science historian Dirk van Delft, "a profusion of tubes, taps, gas flasks, gas holders, liquefiers, Dewar flasks, cryostats, clattering pumps and droning engines, glassblowing and other workshops, instruments and appliances for scientific research." It was here that on July 10, 1908, Onnes managed to liquefy helium—at 5 kelvins (about –268 degrees Celsius)—for the first time in history.....[ More ]

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