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Philip W. Anderson (1923-2020)

May 25, 2020

In this competitive world, everyone is out to get someone's attention. This human trait has been programmed into us by evolution to help in attracting potential mates, and it's been extended into the lives of today's scientists in the form of proposal writing. Written proposals too often lay dormant in huge stacks of other proposals, so a scientist or technology entrepreneur has better success in face-to-face contact with those who hold the purse-strings.

It's usually hard to isolate such important people long enough for a conversation. Fortunately, elevators, aside from being an easy method of moving between building floors, are also small enclosed spaces that hold just a few people. That's why the elevator pitch was developed. An elevator pitch is a necessarily short verbal description of an idea one can present in the hope of generating enough interest to get a follow-up meeting.

The concept of the elevator pitch flashed through my mind in 1979 when I found myself alone in an elevator with Nobel Laureate, Philip W. Anderson (1923-2020), at a Conference on magnetism. Although I recognized him, and we acknowledged each other's presence, he surely had no idea who I was, nor would he have cared. This elevator trip lasted just a few seconds, Anderson exited on his floor, and that was that. Phil Andersen died on March 20, 2020 in Princeton, New Jersey, near Bell Labs and Princeton University where he spent most of his career.[1-4] Anderson was associated with Princeton University for 45 years.[2]

Philip W. Anderson (1923-2020)

Philip W. Anderson (1923-2020).

(Wikimedia Commons photo by Chaiken.)

Anderson was born into a family of academics in Urbana, Illinois, where he lived from 1923 to 1940. In Anderson's own words, his was a family of "secure but impecunious Midwestern academics."[5] His father, Harry Warren Anderson, was a professor of plant pathology at the University of Illinois, Urbana, his maternal grandfather was a professor of mathematics at Wabash College (Crawfordsville, Indiana), and his mother's brother was a professor of English, also at Wabash College. His parents' friends included physicists who encouraged Anderson's interest in physics.[5] His parents were quite politically motivated, and they influenced Anderson in espousing liberal causes, not accepting classified work, and taking a position against the Vietnam War.[5]

Anderson was a teenager when his father spent a sabbatical year in England and Europe in 1937.[5] Home again in high school, he was influenced by an excellent mathematics teacher, so he started in mathematics at Harvard University, full-supported by a scholarship.[5] At Harvard, he was interested also in the humanities, and he graduated after three years with a physics degree at age nineteen.[3,5] After graduation, he worked on antennas at the Naval Research Laboratory, getting a deferment from military service during World War II for having a job that aided the war effort. His work at NRL brought him in contact with engineers from Bell Telephone and Western Electric, whose work he admired. After the war, Anderson returned to Harvard for graduate school in physics.[5]

At Harvard, every physics graduate student wanted to work on quantum electrodynamics under Julian Schwinger (1918-1994), about whom I wrote in an earlier article (Julian Schwinger, January 29, 2015). Anderson decided that this "would lead only to standing in the long line outside Schwinger's office,"[5] so he became a student under John Van Vleck (1899-1980).[3,5] Anderson was able to apply the mathematical techniques of quantum field theory to the problem of spectral line broadening at radio frequencies.[5] At Harvard, he became acquainted with science philosopher, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996),[6] and Tom Lehrer (b. 1928).[7]

After Anderson finished his Ph.D. under Van Vleck in 1949, he joined Bell Telephone Laboratories (a.k.a., Bell Labs), which eventually relocated to Murray Hill, New Jersey, in 1967. At Bell Labs, Anderson worked alongside such solid state luminaries as John Bardeen (1908-1991), William Shockley (1910-1989), Charles Kittel (1916-2019), and Conyers Herring (1914-2009). His continuing education at Bell included crystallography with Elizabeth (Betty) Wood (1912–2006).[5] Anderson was a Fulbright Scholar in physics in Japan in 1953, and he spent a year from 1961-1962 at Cavendish Laboratory and Churchill College, and his association with Cambridge University was extended through 1975 as a visiting professor of theoretical physics.[5] While still associated with Bell Labs, Anderson replaced this Cambridge appointment with a half-time appointment at Princeton University.[5]

Portion of fig. 1, page 48, of Crystal Orientation Manual by Elizabeth A. Wood

Portion of fig. 1, page 48, of the Crystal Orientation Manual by Elizabeth A. Wood.[8] This illustrates the facets of a cubic crystal.

I did a lot of Xray crystallography of garnets at one time. Garnet, one example being the laser crystal, yttrium aluminum garnet (YAG), is a cubic crystal.

(Scan of my copy. Click for larger image.)

While at Bell Labs, Anderson shared equally the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics with his thesis adviser, van Vleck, and Nevill Mott (1905-1996) "for their fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems." At the troubled times of the breakup of the Bell System, Anderson's Bell Labs role was shifted to consultant to the new Vice President of Research and fellow Nobel Laureate, Arno Penzias (b. 1933). It was time for him to leave Bell Labs, so Anderson retired in 1984 to become Joseph Henry Professor of Physics at Princeton. Aside from Princeton, Anderson was heavily involved with the Sante Fe Institute, an organization dedicated to his idea of emergence and his ideals of interdisciplinarity.[5]

Anderson is known in condensed matter physics for his explanation of antiferromagnetism.[2-3] In ferromagnetism, electron spins on adjacent atomic sites are aligned parallel to each other, and this provides the expected lowest energy configuration. In antiferromagnetism, the spins are aligned antiparallel, which didn't seem to make sense as a ground state configuration. But Anderson showed that the quantum fluctuations thought to prevent this alignment would cancel out.[3] semiconductors were an important research topic at Bell Labs, and Anderson showed how defects caused by impurities in a crystal will trap electrons in a quantum state called Anderson localization.[2-4]

One of Anderson's controversial theories was his resonating valence bond theory of high-temperature superconductivity (HTS).[1-3] The principle of HTS is still unexplained.[2-3] One interesting success was a 1962 theory that explained how phonons, acoustic waves in solids, acquired mass within superconductors.[1] The central idea of this paper allowed fellow theorist, Peter Higgs (b. 1929), to explain just a year later how all elementary particles get their mass from interactions with the vacuum state.[2]

Another of Anderson's insights was the idea of emergent phenomena, the idea that new properties appear as systems get more complex.[3] This was contrary to the prevailing notion in physics, reductionism, that everything can be explained if we discover the properties of its smallest parts.[1-3] He expressed this idea in a 1972 paper entitled, "More is Different."[9] Anderson helped in the creation of the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary center for exploration of this new science of complexity.[1-3] As the Santa Fe Institute president, David Krakauer (b. 1967), wrote in the Institute's announcement of Anderson's death,
"His 'More is Different' article from Science in 1972 was the most important and rigorous refutation of the foolishness of reductionism for complex systems yet published. Not only did Phil articulate why confusing parts for the whole was a problem, but in the process, he explained why different fields of inquiry - from genetics to economics - needed to exist."[3]

Anderson is recalled as stating that "Theoretical physics is not just doing calculations. It's setting up the problems so that any fool could do the calculation."[3] Two of Anderson's students, Brian Josephson (b. 1940) and Duncan Haldane (b. 1951), would become Nobel Laureates themselves, Josephson for the eponymous Josephson effect, and Haldane for topological phases of matter.[3] His battle against the reductionist approach targeted particle physicists, whom he he thought were asserting that theirs was a more fundamental science, and everything else was just engineering.[3-4] His part of the battle was Congressional testimony to stop the Superconducting Supercollider.[4] Anderson also had a low opinion of string theory, calling its practitioners theologians.[3]

Along with being awarded the Nobel Prize, Anderson received the US National Medal of Science in 1982, and an honorary degree from his parents' alma mater, the University of Illinois, and foreign membership in the Royal Society.[1,5] He was also a first-degree master of the Chinese board game go, a popular topic in artificial intelligence, which he had picked up while living in Japan.[1,3] He claimed that there were only four go players in Japan who could best him.[3] He received a lifetime achievement award from the Japanese professional go association, the Nihon Ki-in, in 2007.[3]

Portion of a Go game board

Portion of a go game board.

Go is more complex than chess, since there are more than 10300 possible go games. Unlike games such as chess, all go moves are possible at all times, and this leads to its complexity.

(Wikimedia Commons photo by Shizhao.)


  1. Nobel laureate and Princeton physicist Philip Anderson dies at age 96, Princeton University Press Release, March 30, 2020.
  2. Adrian Cho, "Philip Anderson, legendary theorist whose ideas shaped modern physics, dies," Science, March 30, 2020, doi:10.1126/science.abb9809.
  3. Daniel Garisto, "In memoriam: Philip Anderson," Santa Fe Institute Press Release, March 30, 2020.
  4. John Horgan, "Philip Anderson, Gruff Guru of Physics and Complexity Research, Dies," Scientific American, March 30, 2020.
  5. Philip W. Anderson - Biographical, from Nobel Lectures, Physics 1971-1980, Stig Lundqvist, Editor, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992.
  6. Fifty Years of Paradigm Shifting, This Blog, February 25, 2013.
  7. How could any mention of Tom Lehrer in a science blog not include a link to "The Elements" (Tom Lehrer's "The Elements" animated, YouTube Video by Timwi Heizmann, August 19, 2008).
  8. Elizabeth A. Wood, Crystal Orientation Manual, Columbia University Press, New York, 1963.
  9. P. W. Anderson, "More Is Different," Science, vol. 177, no. 4047. (August 4, 1972), pp. 393-396, DOI: 10.1126/science.177.4047.393. Available as a PDF file here.

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