October 23, 1973 was a big day at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Niskayuna. Everyone and everything was ready to help celebrate the 100th birthday of physicist William D. Coolidge, the man who vastly improved the efficiency of X-ray machines and light bulbs.
Coolidge was still very much alive and would be there at the festivities that day with his colleagues, sipping champagne and eating a large cake adorned with 100 candles made to look like tungsten lamps. What could possibly top that?
Well, at 6 a.m. that morning, GE supervisor Milan Fiske got a phone call from a friend in Stockholm, Sweden, with some great news: The Nobel Prizes had just been announced and Ivar Giaever, a native of Norway and a GE employee for the previous two decades, had just been named the Nobel winner in physics.
The Coolidge celebration had just been trumped.
“They had brought in all this champagne and were going to celebrate Coolidge’s birthday, but they ended up using the champagne on me,” remembered Giaever, who became just the second GE scientist to win such a prize, joining the 1932 Nobel recipient for chemistry, Irving Langmuir. “It was a surprise to me. I had no idea.”
An unwanted limousine
Fiske had called Giaever after getting off the phone with Stockholm, and gave him the news. Around 8 that morning, a limousine appeared in Giaever’s driveway on Van Antwerp Road, less than half a mile away from the research lab. Giaever sent it away.
“I bought the house because it was close to work, and typically I walked to work,” said Giaever. “When the limousine came I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’ About a half hour later the guy drove back and told me I had to take the limousine. So I went and they had a big press conference that morning. It was all amazing. I thought at first it was a joke, but I knew Milan wasn’t the kind of person to joke that way. After he called me, the phone didn’t stop ringing.”
The phone continued to ring all day at work, and fortunately for Giaever, co-worker Howard Hart helped him deal with the influx of calls.
“It was great excitement and great fun,” said Hart, who retired in 1995. “I was picking up his phone and answering all kinds of questions. ‘Yes,’ I would tell them. ‘He is from Norway but he is a citizen of the United States.’ So much was going on I can’t even remember how Ivar took it. He doesn’t have a very expressive face, but I knew he had done some nice work and that he was very proud. We all appreciated his success.”
George Wise had started at the research lab just a few months earlier.
“We all got to go down to the lobby and have a glass of champagne,” said Wise, “I was a new employee and I thought, ‘Hey, this is a great place to work.’ I didn’t meet Ivar until after he won the prize, but it was one day I’ll always remember, and the universal comment made that day was, ‘It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.’ ”
A 44-year-old laureate
Giaever was 44 when he won the Nobel, a prize he shared with Dr. Leo Esaki of IBM and Dr. Brian D. Josephson of the University of Cambridge in England. According to a press release by The Nobel Foundation, Giaever and Esaki were awarded the prize “for their experimental discoveries regarding tunneling phenomena in semiconductors and super conductors, respectively.” Josephson earned his recognition “for his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier, in particular those phenomena which are generally known as the Josephson effects.”
Giaever, his wife Inger and all four of their young children flew to Stockholm for the awards ceremony on Dec. 10, 1973.
“The Nobel Foundation paid for me, and GE was nice enough to pay for my wife and the kids,” said Giaever. “We stayed at a very nice hotel in Stockholm. It was a very nice time.”
Giaever had been experimenting with tunneling throughout the 1960s, contributing greatly to the study of phenomena that occur at temperatures near absolute zero. He had left Norway in 1952 after graduating from the Norwegian Institute of Technology and landed in Canada where he began working as a mechanical engineer at the General Electric plant in Petersburgh, Ontario. Never a good student, Giaever finally found out what he wanted to do with his life when he transferred to the GE plant in Schenectady in 1954.
“I was very lazy in college and really didn’t learn that much,” said Giaever. “When I came to Schenectady and the research lab, I saw people writing on blackboards, talking to each other, walking back and forth. They were doing research. I was shocked. I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do,’ but I was 30 years old by the time I found that out. I never knew you could get paid for doing research.”
Doctorate at RPI
While he was working at GE, Giaever began taking classes at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and eventually approached his boss, Roland Schmitt, about becoming a physicist.
“I figured even if he flunked out of physics, he’s still a good applied mathematician,” Schmitt told the Gazette in 1998, speaking of Giaever. He didn’t flunk. In 1964, the year he became a U.S. citizen, he also earned a doctorate from RPI in theoretical physics.
“My father and mother were very happy to see me get my doctorate,” remembered Giaever. “My mother had always said that I should be a locksmith because I could always open all the doors. And I had thought I wanted to be an engineer. I had no idea that I could be a scientist and get paid for it.”
Charlie Bean, John Fisher, Bill Johnson and Walter Harris are among the many people Giaever credits with helping him work his way up the ladder at GE, and it was RPI professor Hillard B. Huntington who sparked Giaever’s interest in superconductivity.
In 1988, Giaever retired from GE and started up his own company, Applied BioPhysics, with GE colleague Charles Keese. Keese is the president and Giaever, now semi-retired, is the chief technical officer. According to the company’s website, its mission is to “apply the results of biophysical research to provide practical tools for cell research and drug discovery.”
Still in Niskayuna
Giaever and his wife still live in their house on Antwerp Road, where they raised a son and three daughters. The couple have eight grandchildren. Out of the spotlight for quite some time by 2008, Giaever and 70 other Nobel Science Laureates created some news by endorsing Barack Obama in his run for the presidency.
While he still supports Obama, Giaever ruffled some liberal feathers in a March 2009 letter to the president when he, along with more than 100 international scientists, was critical of Obama’s stance on global warming. Giaever thinks the case for global warming is overstated, and in 2011 he failed to renew his membership in the American Physical Society because of it, creating quite a stir in the scientific community.
“I like Obama, and I support his health care system even though it’s quite complicated, but I guess if you’re against global warming you have to be a Republican,” said Giaever. “Well, basically I’m a Democrat, but I’m not convinced that global warming is a major issue. I resigned from the APS because they said ‘the evidence for global warming was incontrovertible.’ That means you can’t even discuss it, and I think that’s disgusting. That makes it like religion.”
Religion also happens to be a subject where Giaever disagrees even more vehemently with the president.
“I’m not a spiritual person,” he said. “I look at the evidence and say, ‘is it likely that there’s a God up there who I can pray to and who will listen to me?’ I don’t think so, and that is something I feel like I absolutely know.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org