US physicist who with Chinese-born US physicist Daniel C Tsui and German physicist Horst L Störmer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1998. Laughlin explained a phenomenon discovered by Tsui and Störmer: that the application to an appropriate material of an extremely powerful magnetic field at very low temperatures can cause electrons in the material to form a quantum fluid in which ‘quasiparticles’ can behave as if they had fractional electron charge.
Laughlin provided the theoretical explanation to account for the fractional quantum Hall effect, as the effect discovered in 1982 by Tsui and Störmer is called. He proposed that when electrons were exposed to temperatures close to absolute zero and immensely strong magnetic fields, they condense to form a type of quantum fluid, similar to what had already been reported for superconductors and liquid helium. He suggested that the electrons combined with the ‘flux quanta’ of the magnetic field in stages or steps to form a composite particle or ‘quasiparticle’ that was able to condense. The fractional steps observed by Tsui and Störmer were associated with these quasiparticles.
Laughlin was born in Visalia, California, USA. He received his PhD in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979. He joined Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, in 1979 and carried out research there until 1981 and was a staff member at the Livermore National Laboratory in California from 1981 until 1982. He became associate professor of physics at Stanford University in California in 1984, and a full professor in 1989.