537: The Path of No Resistance by Bruce Schechter

by Gerard


537.623: Schechter, Bruce. The Path of No Resistance: The Story of the Revolution in Superconductivity. New York: Touchstone, 1990. 185 pp. ISBN 0-6716-9599-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 530: Physics
  • 537: Electricity and electronics
  • 537.6: Electrodynamics and thermoelectricity
  • 537.62: Electric conductivity and resistance
  • 537.623: Superconductivity

Alright, first a primer on superconductivity: When electricity flows down a wire, some of the flow is lost due to the resistance of the material. The opposite of resistance is conductance. Superconductivity occurs when a material is cooled to such a ridiculously low temperature that the near-absence of heat allows electricity to flow without loss. The temperature at which this happens is called the critical temperature. High-temperature superconductivity physics seeks to find materials that allows for superconductivity at a critical temperature above 77 kelvins. Everybody with me so far? Good. Here we go.

Bruce Schechter, in The Path of No Resistance, documents the early pioneers in the field of high-temperature superconductivity. Regular superconductivity was discovered as a property of matter in 1911. For 75 years, no one had come up with a material that superconducted above 23K. Then, in 1986, Bednorz and Mueller induced superconductivity in lanthanum barium copper oxide at 35K (trust me, the 12K difference was earth-shattering news). They were immediately awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics the next year. (By the way, for those that care, the current record (as of 2014) is mercury barium calcium copper oxide at 133 kelvins.)

Then, things really got fun. Research teams from across the world theorized a new frontier of superconductive ceramics where electricity could flow and maglev trains could travel across countries without energy loss. The problem was that all this was very pie in the sky talk. The only samples that could produce such effects were small and fragile at best. Schechter’s interviews with scientists a few years after the fact show just how scientific thought changes from year to year and what happens when the media gets a hold of scientific discoveries before the techniques are properly vetted. It’s an interesting book, albeit slightly dated, but fun nonetheless.