"Receiving the Lise Meitner Award is a big honor"

Ivan Schuller, distinguished professor of Physics at University of California San Diego, is the winner of the Lise Meitner award 2015 for “creating the field of metallic superlattices and recognizing its impact on magnetism and superconductivity". Ivan Schuller will receive the prize and hold a lecture in Gothenburg, Sweden on September 17th. When asked a couple of questions about the award and his work, he reveals that he has a fictional relation to the late Lise Meitner that goes back to before being honored with the award bearing her name.

You have received many awards for your work previously – what does the Lise Meitner award mean to you?

- Receiving the Lise Meitner Award is a big honor and I am very happy about it. Receiving this type of recognition is very nice. But the real reward at every moment of my life is doing Physics.

- Lise Meitner also has a special meaning to me from a human point of view, even though my technical work is not in the same area as hers. I became quite intensely interested in her a few years ago through my interests in popularizing physics to non-experts. She was a fantastic physicist, had a very interesting and intense life and is one of our heroines. So she is a very fascinating subject for a play or movie. Because of this I have been investigating her life, with the aim of writing a fictional play centered on her life.

What are you working on now and how can your work be applied in society?

- This is a very difficult question and one that we are continuously asked. Physics and science in general is the basis of all the marvels that surround us, from communicating long distances, to looking into our bodies, to keeping us warm in the winter, to ending hunger. None of these transformative technological breakthroughs would be possible, without major revolutionary changes in basic science. The problem is that it is very difficult to connect directly major basic science developments, to possible future applications and benefits to society. Of course, applied research does advance technology on an incremental way, but transformative technology arises in very unexpected places, which nobody can predict.

- My own work is dedicated to understanding and controlling the behavior of novel materials, which do not exist in nature. The basic science that we study is trying to understand the behavior of complex materials, so called strongly correlated nanosystems, in a variety of configurations. The aim is to produce into materials properties which do not exist naturally and which can be manipulated at will. This are what are known in the field as functional materials.

What is, in your opinion, the most interesting question to be solved within your field?

- One very important and interesting question is to understand the difference between the way artificial solid-state system process data compared to biological systems. Clearly solid-state data manipulation systems can do marvelous things such as the intercommunication of the whole world and processing of large amounts of information such as needed for weather prediction.  On the other hand, biological brains can be creative and self-conscious and use many orders of magnitude less energy.

- So understanding why these two systems are so different and whether we can design a new solid-state system, which manipulates data in a radically different way, is a very fascinating question. Some approaches to this have been known in the scientific literature as neuromorphic computing, memristive electronics and or quantum information processing.

Apart from your research you also make educational movies such as When things get small, with over 222 000 views on University of California Television and nominated for five Emmy awards in 2006. Why is it important for you to reach out in this way and does it benefit you as a scientist in any way?

- Explaining science to the public is not only personally satisfying it is also an important social obligation. After all society is the one that funds our very expensive activities. In addition explaining our research in simple way has a very important scientific role. It clarifies our own ideas and expands our thoughts beyond the narrow field we work in.

What are your expectations when coming to Sweden and Gothenburg in September?

- I definitely hope to broaden my collaboration with people from Gothenburg and perhaps other places in Sweden like in Stockholm.

- I also hope to do some further research on the life of Lise Meitner. I hope that following in her footsteps and visiting places such as Kungälv where she did her work will be very inspiring.

Text: Karin Weijdegård

The Lise Meitner Award

Lise Meitner was a researcher working in Berlin from 1907 to 1938, when she was forced to flee from the Nazis. She continued her work in Sweden and during a stay in Kungälv she was the first scientist to understand nuclear fission. In her honor the Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award is given to a scientist who made a breakthrough discovery in physics.

The event is organized by the Gothenburg Physics Centre and is supported by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences through the Nobel Institute of Physics and by the municipality of Kungälv.

Ivan Schuller will receive the award and hold a lecture at the Gustaf Dalén Lecture hall at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Thursday September 17, 3:15 PM – 17:30 PM. Everyone is welcome to take part in the event!

Previous Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award Laureates

2014            Ewine F. van Dishoeck
2013            Mildred Dresselhaus
2012            Werner Nahm
2010/11       Stefan W. Hell
2009            Renata Kallosh
2008            I. K. Yanson
2007            Pierre Ramond
2006            Robert Marc Friedman

Read more about Lise Meitner-priset och Ivan Schuller
See his movie "When things get small"

Published: Tue 28 Jul 2015. Modified: Tue 18 Aug 2015