Superconductivity's Smorgasbord of Insights: A Movable Feast

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Science  08 Apr 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6026, pp. 190-192
DOI: 10.1126/science.332.6026.190

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On 8 April 1911, physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes made perhaps the most important discovery in the physics of materials. When he and his team at Leiden University cooled a sample of mercury to within 3˚ of absolute zero, or 3 kelvin, its electrical resistance vanished so that current flowed through the metal with no energy to push it. Kamerlingh Onnes had discovered superconductivity, one of the most bizarre tricks of nature. Physicists struggled for nearly 50 years to explain the phenomenon. When they finally did, the resulting theory would prove to be far more than just the explanation for one weird property of some metals. Physicists have applied the theory of superconductivity directly to nuclear matter, liquid helium, and ultracold atomic gases. Historically, insights from superconductivity convinced theorists of the importance of symmetries and the ways in which a physical system can muddle or "break" them. The concept of "spontaneous symmetry breaking" now undergirds theory in many fields, especially particle physics.