"It's like we started out to build a car and along the way invented the wheel," is how Leon Cooper described the ramifications of the BCS Theory of Superconductivity at the 50th anniversary conference held in October at the Beckman Institute to honor the theory's publication.
Cooper, the "C" in BCS Theory, was a research associate of University of Illinois Professor and co-inventor of the transistor John Bardeen when they and graduate student Robert Schrieffer first published their theory in 1957. The trio won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1972 for their Theory of Superconductivity, which solved one of the most difficult and longest standing problems in physics. Now considered one of the seminal theories in physics, BCS explained the problem of superconductivity, the phenomenon where some materials show a complete loss of electrical resistance at very low temperatures.
Cooper said that the "wheels" coming from building the BCS Theory "car" have included developments such as quantum computing, SQUID detectors used in astronomy and MRI, and supercomputers. The Beckman Institute is home to basic research, but is also a place where the applications coming from the research are important. During his talk, Cooper stressed the importance of funding basic scientific research, and emphasized the point in an interview afterward.
"If you don't do the fundamental science, it's like eating your seed corn," Cooper said. "You will continue to get results but they will peter out. The countries that continue to do fundamental science, there will be a shift to them. It leads to applications and leads to training new people. It's a tough problem because you have all of the needs of the moment and you have to balance them against what you have to do for the future."
More than 250 people filled the Beckman auditorium for the four days of the conference, which featured Cooper, Schrieffer, and many nationally-known physicists such as fellow Nobel Prize winners Anthony Leggett from the U of I and Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas.
Another featured speaker, U of I Physics Professor Gordon Baym, collaborated with Bardeen in the 1960s and 70s. Bardeen is the only person to win two Nobel Prizes for Physics, also winning in 1956 as the theoretical mind behind the invention of the transistor.
"It was my first experience in doing real physics," Baym said of working with Bardeen.
"We would trade ideas back and forth; everybody was equals. Deep down, even though he was one of the smartest people ever, he was just fundamentally a really good human being."
Cooper said in his talk that because of BCS Theory, many real-world applications were developed. Baym later gave examples, such as the magnets with superconductivity material used in Fermilab's particle accelerator, MRI technology, and possible future applications such as superfast, elevated magnetic trains.
"The applications are enormous," Baym said. "But it also was intellectually a tremendously challenging problem. Starting in 1911, all the great men in physics, Niels Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, everybody tried to solve it. It really required introducing some new ideas into physics."