Newswise — Alexei Abrikosov, an acclaimed physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory who received the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on superconducting materials, died Wednesday, March 29. He was 88.
Abrikosov proposed the theory that underlies our understanding of “type-II” superconductors, which are instrumental to technology that affects virtually all our lives and areas of science, including MRI machines, particle accelerators and cell phone towers.
Superconductors are a peculiar but extremely useful class of materials that are able to conduct electricity perfectly — with no loss at all — when cooled to extremely low temperatures.
Until 1952, scientists only understood one type of superconductors, whose properties vanished under a sufficiently strong external magnetic field. That year, Abrikosov developed a theory that showed that magnetic fields could penetrate a superconducting material to create a network of vortices, while the material itself remained superconducting.
“You can think of it like punching holes in a sheet of paper,” said Argonne Materials Science Division director Michael Norman. “As long as the holes stay in a fixed position, the paper keeps its form.”
The discovery of this vortex behavior — now known as an Abrikosov vortex lattice — allows scientists to develop superconducting materials that carry far higher currents and thus able to generate much higher magnetic fields.
“Dr. Abrikosov’s achievements laid a foundation for years of scientific research and discovery to come,” said Paul K. Kearns, Interim Laboratory Director. “Work we do every day at the lab relies on what he was able to explain, and is instrumental to technology that affects our personal and professional lives.
"Dr. Abrikosov was more than a colleague — he was an inspiration and an exemplar,” Kearns continued. “All of us at Argonne aspire to his intellect, to the perseverance he showed in the face of criticism during his early days as a scientist, and to the longevity of his accomplished career. He will be missed and his memory honored.”
Abrikosov’s wide-ranging scientific research also included work in quantum electrodynamics – the theory of elemental particle interactions — as well as astrophysics, magnetoresistance, plasma physics and the theory of quantum liquids. His foundational book with Lev Gorkov and Igor Dzyaloshinskii, “Methods of Quantum Field Theory in Statistical Physics,” has become such a classic in condensed matter physics that it is known to scientists in the field simply by the acronym of its three authors — “AGD.”
According to Norman, Abrikosov’s discovery formed the foundation for future breakthroughs in “topological matter,” which involves, in part, essentially two-dimensional superconductors. Work in this field by researchers who followed Abrikosov formed the basis of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Abrikosov was born in Moscow in 1928, and received his Ph.D. in 1951 from the Institute for Physical Problems. He worked at several institutes in Moscow, including as director of the Institute for High-Pressure Physics of the Academy of Sciences, before joining Argonne’s Materials Science Division as a Distinguished Scientist in 1991. He was appointed leader of Argonne’s condensed matter theory group in 1992 and held the position until 2000, though he continued to work with the division until last year. “He grew up in the age of Stalin, came to the United States as the Soviet Union was breaking up and loved to climb mountains,” Norman said. “You needed to be prepared to spend an hour with him if you went to his office because he always had stories to tell.”
Abrikosov was also an adjunct professor with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Utah.
He is honored at the laboratory with a postdoctoral fellowship named for him which sponsors up-and-coming materials scientists.
Abrikosov was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a foreign member of the Royal Society of London, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Physical Society, among other honors. He also received the Lenin prize in 1966, the London prize in 1972, the Landau Prize in 1989 and the John Bardeen Award in 1991.
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