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'I never knew you could get paid for doing research'

GE 125th Anniversary

'I never knew you could get paid for doing research'

'I was very lazy in college and really didn't learn that much'
'I never knew you could get paid for doing research'
Nobel Prize winner Ivar Giaever relaxes last week outside his Niskayuna home.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Nobody believes Ivar Giaever when he tells people how lazy he used to be. Why would they?

He won the 1973 Noble Prize in Physics while at GE and went on to teach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and to launch his own company, Applied BioPhysics. But to hear him tell the story, even when he emigrated from Norway to Canada in 1952 and landed a job as an architect's aide in GE's plant in Petersburgh, Ontario, he hadn't yet found anything to get excited about.

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"I was very lazy in college and really didn't learn that much," Giaever told The Daily Gazette back in 2013. "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 out. I never knew you could get paid for doing research."

Giaever worked at GE at the research center in Niskayuna from 1954 to 1988. Soon after arriving, he started taking classes at RPI. And in 1964, he not only picked up his doctorate in theoretical physics but also became a U.S. citizen. He was 44 when he won the Nobel Prize, and he was 60 when he left the company to become a college professor in 1988.

In 1992, he and Charles Keese started Applied BioPhysics, and Giaever still tries to get into that company's office in Troy two or three times a week. Though he gives director Walter Robb credit now for doing the right thing for GE Global Research, he still thinks he picked the right time to leave.

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Pictured: Ivar Giaever works in the lab at GE Global Reserach in 1985, 12 years after winning the Nobel.

"It was a wonderful place to work, and while I was there, it was at the height of industrial research," said Giaever, relaxing at his home earlier this month. "But I was absolutely right to leave, and I should have left sooner. I stayed too long because I realized how much I enjoyed teaching at RPI. And then Charley and I started our company, so it was the right thing for me to do."

Born in Bergen, Norway, on April 5, 1929, Giaever graduated from the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim in 1952. By 1960, he had begun seriously working in Niskayuna on electron tunneling in semiconductors. The technique he developed both provided a new method for studying superconductivity and opened the possibility of a new class of electronic devices.  It was his work in this area that earned him the Nobel Prize, which he shared with fellow physicists Leo Esaki and Brian D. Josephson.

On Oct. 23 of that year, Giaever got a phone call at his home from Sweden telling him he had won the Nobel Prize. His colleagues at the research lab had an elaborate 100th birthday party planned for William D. Coolidge, another GE physicist who was still alive at the time. But instead of Coolidge being the center of attention, it was Giaever who enjoyed the spotlight; his Nobel being just the second in the history of the company and coming 41 years after Irving Langmuir won his for chemistry.

"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 Gaiever in 2013.

While a broken bone in his back has slowed him down this summer (he and his wife, Inger, may not take their yearly trip to Norway), Gaiever does keep busy. Due to the injury he doesn't get over to Rensselaer Technology Park in Troy as much as he'd like, but the business is in good hands with his partner, Keese, at the helm. It was Giaever and Keese who teamed up while at GE to develop a method called ECIS (electric cell-substrate impedance sensing) that helped doctors measure the invasive nature of cancer cells. Keese is now president of the company, and Giaever is its chief technology officer.

"We have about 10 people working for us, and things are going very well," said Giaever. "We are introducing some new systems, but we haven't really tried them out yet. We're hoping they will go very well."

Late last year, Giaever produced a book, an autobiography called "I am The Smartest Man I Know: A Nobel Laureate's Difficult Journey."

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"I didn't really want that for the title, but it was something I used to say when I was at GE, and I used to say it as a kid," said Giaever. "It was a joke. But we decided to call it that. It's an autobiography that covers just about everything: leaving Norway and heading to Canada and then coming to Schenectady. It covers a lot of things."

Notwithstanding the book's title, Giaever said he was not always the smartest guy in the room. Charles P. Bean, a GE physicist who specialized in superconductivity and magnetism, surprised him every now and then. Bean, who worked at GE for 34 years, died in 1996.

"There were lots of smart people there, like my friend Ed Uzgiris and Jim Wray and Charley Keese, but Charlie Bean was just fantastic," said Giaever. "He actually was the smartest person I knew."

Giaever has drawn some criticism in the scientific community over the past decade because of his feelings about global warming. While he was a supporter of President Obama and considers himself a Democrat — even though he prefers not to be pigeonholed into any category — he doesn't believe there's much to global warming.

"I agree with [President] Trump, absolutely." he said. "It's fake news. You read the paper every week or two, and there's a story about the ocean rising, the temperature is rising, but it's always 30 years from now and not now. There's never anything now."

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