Alexei Abrikosov, physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2003 for his work on superconductors, died on Wednesday, March 29 at 88 years of age. As an adjunct professor at the University of Utah, he would visit the campus to speak with researchers and give fantastic talks about growing up in Stalin’s USSR, studying with the famous Soviet physicist, Lev Landau, and making his Nobel Prize discovery.
Abrikosov was a lifelong teacher, and clearly communicated his ideas in fundamental physics books that inspired many young scientists to study condensed matter physics, including members of the Department of Physics and Astronomy here at the U.
“Alexei was a rare combination of creativity and mathematical skill,” says Eugene Mishchenko, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “He was a person who lived for physics. He loved what he was doing, and he was doing it very well.”
Confectioners and condensed matter physics
Abrikosov’s achievements are even more impressive considering his family’s amazing history, explains Mishchenko. Abrikosov’s great grandfather, Stepan Nikoleav, was a serf, which was a peasant who could be sold between landowners. In 1804, Nikoleav’s landlady sent him to Moscow to open a candy-making business. Eventually he made enough money to buy his and his family’s freedom. He changed his last name to the Russian word for apricot, Abrikosov, a fruit used in his popular sweets. By 1899, Abrikosov and Sons was the biggest confectionary business in Russia, and the official candy-maker of the emperor’s court. They lost the business when it was nationalized after the Revolution of 1917, but the tenacious spirit persisted throughout the Abrikosov lineage.
“It’s a big family with many scientists, physicians, mathematicians, and engineers, that all trace back to that one guy in Moscow,” says Mishchenko. “It’s amazing story. Everyone was extremely successful. They started from the lowest possible position — a freed peasant — and came into real prominence.”
After completing his Ph.D. under Landau, Abrikosov became interested in condensed matter physics and studied superconductivity. Superconductors are materials with no resistance to electrical currents; electricity can flow through a superconductor without a battery. In addition, magnetic fields cannot penetrate into superconductors. However, the magical electrical properties disappear if magnetic fields are sufficiently strong.
Experiments showed that magnetic fields could penetrate into some materials without destroying their superconductivity, but no one understood how. Those materials became known as type II superconductors. In the 1950s, Abrikosov discovered that magnetic fields penetrate along very thin lines of normal metal, called vortices, surrounded by superconducting regions. He realized that as you increase the magnitude of the magnetic field, the vortices multiply and arrange themselves in a special crystal-like pattern, says Mishchenko. The patterns, now called Abrikosov vortex lattices, earned him the Nobel Prize in physics in 2003.
The discovery opened up a new field and decades of exciting research. It allowed scientists to develop superconducting magnets that produce stronger, more stable magnetic fields while consuming less power compared to other devices. Type II superconductors have become a part of everyday life, forming the basis of MRI diagnostics and other applications.
Abrikosov not only contributed to the field with his original theories and discoveries, but also through his textbooks about metals, quantum field theory and condensed matter physics.
“He was a very clear thinker, and he would put an effort in explaining things and give you all tools to understand how to use them,” Mishchenko said. “That had enormous influence on me in my own work.”
Mishchenko devoured Abrikosov’s two classic books: “The Fundamentals of the Theory of Metals” and “The Methods of Quantum Field Theory in Statistical Physics.” They strongly influenced Mishchenko ‘s research. He focuses on the electronic phenomena in graphene, a material comprising an atomically-thick layer of carbon atoms. Graphene is being studied as a possible alternative to the standard silicon technology used in electronics.
In July of 2003, just a few months before he won the Nobel Prize, Mishchenko visited Abrikosov at the Argonne National Laboratory. He is Abrikosov’s “academic grandson” — Mishchenko’s advisor was Abrikosov’s former student.
“He was still active, always working himself, not just delegating the hard calculations to his students,” he said. “I was very happy to have met him.”
Mikhail Raikh, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the U, was also greatly influenced by Abrikosov’s book, “The Fundamentals of the Theory of Metals.” One theory that left a lasting impression on Raikh had to do with his work on resistance of metals with magnetic impurities.
“I read about a phenomenon in his book, and it impressed me so much that I started working on it and made progress,” he says. “That’s how he affected me, without knowing it.”
In the early 1950s, physicist Jun Kondo described a mysterious phenomenon that had been observed in metals with lots of impurities, called the Kondo effect. Metals with magnetic impurities conducted electricity differently than their pure counterparts. In the mid 1960s, Abrikosov published papers on the Kondo effect at low temperatures. He discovered that a resonance appeared in the scattering of electrons of a magnetic impurity atom. The so-called Abrikosov-Suhl resonance is now part of every textbook on the theory of metals.
In the early 1990s, the phenomenon was revived as scientists studied the resistance of metals on the nanoscale. Now it is so routine that you don’t celebrate when you notice it. People forget that it goes back to 1965, says Raikh.
Abrikosov had a profound influence on Raikh’s reputation as a young researcher. Every two years, he organized an informal meeting of Soviet theorists in Odessa. He invited Raikh to these elite meetings in 1983, 1985, and 1987 to report on his research. The opportunity to present research in his formative years was very important to Raikh.
“He definitely influenced parts of my research. There are aspects that are important to me, personally.” says Raikh. “He was brilliant, and he had fantastic intuition.”