What's Behind the Discoveries That Won Nobel Science Prizes

Trying to mirror the birth of the universe in laboratory experiments sounds like an astronomer's impossible dream. Yet this is what the discovery that won the 1996 Nobel Prize in physics enables scientists to do.

It may also seem quixotic to try to run chemical reactions in containers little bigger than molecules themselves. Yet this is what the discovery that won the Nobel chemistry prize lets chemists do.

In short, the two prizes announced earlier this month reward work that opens new windows onto other important phenomena.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prizes, says the physics discovery is helping researchers develop "valuable knowledge ... for describing matter at the microscopic level." This is the level at which cosmologists need to understand the primordial interplay of forces to unravel how the early universe formed.

As for chemistry, the academy notes that the prizewinning discovery opened "a whole new chemistry" that "has influenced our conception of such widely separated scientific problems" as the way carbon cycles through our galaxy and how atoms hook together to form molecules.

Chemists Robert Curl Jr. and Richard Smalley of Rice University in Houston and Sir Harold Kroto at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, weren't looking for a revolutionary discovery when they gathered at Rice in 1985. They expected to study formation of long-chain molecules of carbon and nitrogen whose characteristics might match those of substances Dr. Kroto saw in the atmospheres of some stars and in interstellar gas. What they found was an unexpected form of carbon that looked like a miniature version of the late Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes. They called it buckminster fullerene in his honor.

How the fullerenes - or "bucky balls" as they're now called - actually form, "is still the big mystery," Dr. Curl said as he accepted his prize earlier this month.

But carbon in this form is a tough, enduring substance. It has been found in outer space and in geological formations on Earth. Two years ago, for example, Luann Becker at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in Santa Barbara, working as part of a larger team, reported finding fullerenes in the 1.85 billion-year-old Sudbury meteorite crater in Ontario, Canada.

Also that year, Dieter Heymann at Rice University, as part of a team that included Smalley, reported finding fullerenes in New Zealand in deposits dating to 65 million years ago - the time when the dinosaurs disappeared.

Fullerenes come in various shapes made up of substructures in which carbon atoms link up to form six-sided hexagonal or five-sided pentagonal surfaces. Some of them look like soccer balls. Others are tiny tubes.

Many of them can act as containers that hold other atoms or molecules inside. Research in England has indicated that "bucky tubes" can hold enzymes so tightly that they might be able to be used to catalyze chemical reactions.

So far, this is just intriguing research. As Smalley told reporters when his prize was announced, fullerenes right now "are more expensive than gold." The main value of bucky balls so far has been as "a harbinger of what turns out to be an infinite new class of materials."

Like the Nobel-winning chemists, David Lee and Robert Richardson of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Douglas Osheroff now at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., weren't thinking of epochal achievement in 1972. They were looking at magnetic effects in frozen samples of a special form of helium called helium-3. Dr. Osheroff, then a graduate student on the Cornell team, noticed anomalies in the data as samples melted. Team members could have dismissed this as instrumental error.

Instead, they took it seriously and made the prizewinning discovery of how helium-3 can transform itself into a liquid that flows without friction at temperatures within a few thousandths of a degree above absolute zero (273.15 degrees below zero Celsius).

Physicists have tinkered with superfluid liquid helium since the late 1930s. In this state, the liquid has no internal friction. It can run up the side of an open container and flow over the top seemingly in defiance of gravity. The catch has been that scientists thought only helium-4 was involved. The odd number of nucleons in helium-3 atoms caused them to repel each other. For helium-3 to dance in a superfluid waltz, they must pair up with dance partners so that the partners have an even number of nucleons between them.

The Cornell team not only found helium-3 pairing up in this manner, it showed that it does so in three distinct phases. Thereby the scientists gave themselves and other scientists a powerful new tool for studying how the laws of quantum physics manifest themselves in nature.

Physicists expect that vortices that appear when helium-3 cools to its superfluid state mirror those that theoretically formed in primordial dust when the universe was born. Research teams in Europe have found evidence that these vortices form as expected in helium-3.

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