FOR one reason or another, not many Swiss-descent scientists have won Nobel Prizes in Physics.
But Switzerland as a country has spawned many Nobel-winning works. German, Italian, Austrian, Dutch and American physicists have from time-to-time found their scientific fortunes in that land-locked, neutral country.
David Lindley in his book Uncertainty – Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and the Struggle for the Soul of Science wrote how Austrian-born Erwin Schrodinger found the right place, time and company to come out with his monumental work that won him a Nobel Prize in 1933.
According to Lindley, “over the Christmas holiday of 1925, Schrodinger took himself from his wife and spent some days at a resort near Davos, Switzerland with a girlfriend whose name has been lost to history. One physicist later described that episode as ‘a late erotic outburst of his life’.”
Schrodinger (close to forty years old by now) found an elegant equation that was pivotal to the then newly emergent field of quantum mechanics. It was his tour de force!
Two decades earlier in a Swiss Patent Office in Berne, German-born Albert Einstein had an “erratic outburst of his life.”He produced four seminal papers, all covering different subfields of physics.
According to The Impact of Modern Scientific Ideas on Society, the papers centred on the photon theory of the structure of light (quantum physics), an explanation of Brownian motion (atomic physics), the special theory of relativity, and the equivalent of mass and energy (electromagnetism).
As a poor patent clerk, Einstein could not afford exotic and romantic holidays in a posh Swiss resort, his dry and drab patent office was conducive enough for him to produce prize-winning work.
Many European physicists while working in CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Reasearch) at Geneva, Switzerland made great discoveries.
Italian-born Carlo Rubbia discovered the W and Z particles in 1983 together with Dutch-born engineer Simon van der Meer. They were awarded the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics.
In the IBM laboratories in Switzerland, Swiss physicist Alex Muller and German physicist Gerge Bednorz jointly won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of high-temperature superconductors in 1986.
Rubbia, van der Meer, Bednorz and Muller were lucky to get Nobel recognition soon after their breakthrough research. In the same IBM lab, Gerd Karl Binnig and Ernst Ruska of Germany shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of scanning tunneling microscope.
American-born Richard Feynman’s Nobel winning work was done at Cornell University and Switzerland.
The majestic Swiss Alps may have the mystic Olympian perch that inspires generations of scientific heroes from near and far to receive their Nobel Prizes in Stockholm, Sweden.
Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily since 1988, he never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitled ‘Musing from the Ivory Tower’.