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Oct. 9, 2007

Michigan State University adjunct physics professor wins Nobel Prize

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The work of Albert Fert, who shares the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics with a German colleague for technology used to read information from computer hard drives, has roots – and branches – with Michigan State University physicists. 

Fert, a professor at the Universite Paris-Sud, Orsay, France, and director of the Unite mixte de physique CNRS in Orsay, has been an adjunct professor in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy for 10 years. 

Fert has strong collaborations with physics professors Jack Bass, Bill Pratt and Peter Schroeder, all of whom have worked for years with Fert on giant magnetoresistance. 

In 1988, Fert and Germany’s Peter Grunberg discovered that weak changes in magnetic fields can generate larger changes in electrical resistance in magnetic multilayers consisting of alternating layers of magnetic and nonmagnetic metals, each layer only a few atoms thick. This effect has led to sensitive tools for reading the information stored on hard disks and recently made it possible to miniaturize hard drives. 

The MSU team’s ability to make high-quality magnetic multilayers led to collaborations of Fert with the MSU team. 

“We had a mutual interest in developing ideas and better understanding the physics underlying what he had discovered,” Bass said. “We also found a way to measure something that was complimentary to what he had originally measured – giant magnetoresistance with current flowing perpendicular to the plane of the multilayers.” 

MSU’s pioneering measurements of perpendicular current flow fit together well with Fert’s model of how the giant magnetoresistance should change in this case. Bass and Schroeder have spent sabbaticals working in Fert’s lab in France. MSU faculty and Fert, and their students, have traveled to each other’s laboratories to make samples, conduct measurements and share scientific ideas. The collaboration has led to several scientific publications with Fert and his students. 

“We’ve worked in two different directions,” Bass said. “One is a direct outgrowth of original discoveries – another is in a different direction. Both are very productive for understanding the physics of giant magnetoresistence.” 

“The result has been a very dynamic collaboration,” said Wolfgang Bauer, University Distinguished Professor and chairperson of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. 

Each year since 1901 the Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for peace. The Nobel Prize is an international award administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. The two scientists will share a $1.5 million prize. 


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