Friday, April 15, 2011


This month marks the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity. An article in the magazine IEEE Spectrum states:
On April 8, 1911, physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes of Leiden University used an intricate glass cryostat to cool mercury down to just a few degrees above absolute zero. Then he scribbled down three words that ultimately marked the discovery of an entirely new physical phenomenon.

The phrase, jotted more than halfway down the page of a messy lab notebook, didn’t really match the occasion. What Kamerlingh Onnes wrote was 'Mercury practically zero', or, according to a more literal translation, 'Quick[silver] near-enough dull'. But what he saw was the first evidence of superconductivity, the ability of some substances to conduct electricity with no resistance at all."
You can learn more about this landmark event in a Physics Today September 2010 article “The Discovery of Superconductivity,” by Dirk van Delft and Peter Kes, and the article “Superconductivity’s Smorgasbord of Insights: A Movable Feast,” in the April 8, 2011 issue of Science by Adrian Cho. Also, see the biography of Onnes on

One of my favorite books is The Quest for Absolute Zero, by Kurt Mendelssohn. He starts his tale in 1877 with the liquefaction of oxygen and then tells the subsequent history of low temperature physics, including the fascinating story of how Onnes liquefied helium and his early superconductivity studies. According to Mendelssohn, the reason mercury was used for the first experiment is because it could be purified:
“There was one other metal which might be obtained in an even purer state than gold, and that was mercury. Being a liquid at room temperatures, it can be distilled and re-distilled again and again until an extreme degree of purity is reached. The results were communicated to the Netherlands Royal Academy on the 28th April 1911, when Onnes reported that mercury, as well as a sample of very pure gold, had, at helium temperature, reached resistivities so low that his instruments had failed to detect them. He was particularly intrigued with the behavior of the mercury sample because it had still a fairly high resistance at liquid hydrogen temperatures and could also be recorded at the boiling point of liquid helium but then vanished at lower temperatures.”
Russ Hobbie and I discuss superconductivity in Section 8.9 (Detection of Weak Magnetic Fields) of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
“The [magnetic] signals from the body are weaker, and their measurement requires higher sensitivity and often special techniques to reduce noise. Hämäläinen et al. (1993) present a detailed discussion of the instrumentation problems. Sensitive detectors are constructed from superconducting materials. Some compounds, when cooled below a certain critical temperature, undergo a sudden transition and their electrical resistance falls to zero. A current in a loop of superconducting wire persists for as long as the wire is maintained in the superconducting state. The reason there is a superconducting state is a well-understood quantum-mechanical effect that we cannot go into here. It is due to the cooperative motion of many electrons in the superconductor [Eisberg and Resnick (1985), Sec. 14.1; Clarke (1994)].”
We then go on to discuss superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) magnetometers, which are often used to measure the small magnetic fields produced by the brain or the heart. Although not discussed in our book, superconductivity is also used in many MRI machines to produce the strong static magnetic field without losses due to heating of a copper coil.

The citations in the quote from our book are to:

Clarke, J. (1994). SQUIDS. Sci. Am. Aug. 1994: 46–53.

Eisberg, R., and R. Resnick (1985). Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei and Particles, 2nd ed. New York, Wiley.

Hämäläinen, M., R. Harri, R. J. Ilmoniemi, J. Knuutila, and O. V. Lounasmaa (1993). Magnetoencephalography—theory, instrumentation, and applications to noninvasive studies of the working human brain. Rev. Mod. Phys. 65(2): 413–497.

1 comment:

  1. Thank You for these citations. I have no doubt that they serve as just the right place to start to study this direction of science for anyone who is interested not only in MRI imaging, but so much more!