Philip W. Anderson


My father, Harry Warren Anderson, was a professor of plant pathology at the University of Illinois in Urbana, where I was brought up from 1923 to 1940. Although raised on the farm – my grandfather was an unsuccessful fundamentalist preacher turned farmer – my father and his brother both became professors. My mother’s father was a professor of mathematics at my father’s college, Wabash, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and her brother was a Rhodes Scholar, later a professor of English, also at Wabash College; on both sides my family were secure but impecunious Midwestern academics. At Illinois my parents belonged to a group of warm, settled friends, whose life centered on the outdoors and in particular on the “Saturday Hikers”, and my happiest hours as a child and adolescent were spent hiking, canoeing, vacationing, picnicking, and singing around the campfire with this group. They were unusually politically conscious for that place and time, and we lived with a strong sense of frustration and foreboding at the events in Europe and Asia. My political interests were later strengthened by the excesses in the name of “security” and “loyalty” of the “McCarthy” years, to the extent that I have never accepted work on classified matters and have from time to time worked for liberal causes and against the Vietnam war.

Among my parents’ friends were a number of physicists (such as Wheeler Loomis and Gerald Almy) who encouraged what interest in physics I showed. An important impression was my father’s one Sabbatical year, spent in England and Europe in 1937. I read voraciously, but among the few intellectual challenges I remember at school was a first-rate mathematics teacher at the University High School, Miles Hartley, and I went to college intending to major in mathematics. I was one of several students sent to Harvard from Uni High in those years on the new full-support National Scholarships. The first months at Harvard were more than challenging, as I came to the realization that the humanities could be genuinely interesting, and, in fact, given the weaknesses of my background, very difficult. Nonetheless in time I relaxed and enjoyed the experience of Harvard, and was in the end pleasantly surprised to come out with a good record.

In those wartime years (1940-43) we were urged to concentrate in the immediately applicable subject of “Electronic Physics” and I was then bundled off to the Naval Research Laboratory to build antennas (1943-45). (It may be remembered that such war work was advisable for those of us who wore glasses, the “services” at that time being convinced that otherwise we would be best utilized as infantry.) This work left me with a lasting admiration for Western Electric equipment and Bell engineers, and for the competence of my former physics (not electronics) professors at Harvard; after the war, I went back to learn what the latter could teach me.

Graduate school (1945-49) consisted of excellent courses; a delightful group of friends, including for instance Dave Robinson and Tom Lehrer, centered around bridge, puzzles, and singing; a happy decision that Schwinger and Q.E.D. would lead only to standing in the long line outside Schwinger’s office, whereas Van Vleck, whom I already knew from undergraduate school and a wartime incident, seemed to have time to think about what I might do; meeting and marrying one summer the niece of old family friends, Joyce Gothwaite, and therefore settling down to work on my problem. Further motivation was provided by the birth of a daughter, Susan. When I did settle down, I rather suddenly came to realize that the sophisticated mathematical techniques of modern quantum field theory which I was learning in advanced courses from Schwinger and Furry were really genuinely useful in the experimental problem of spectral line broadening in the new radio-frequency spectra, just then being exploited because of wartime electronics advances. Although I didn’t know it, across the world – in England with Fröhlich and Peierls, in Princeton with Bohm and later Pines, and in Russia with Bogoliubov and especially Landau – the new subject of many-body physics was being born from similar marriages of maturing mathematical techniques with new experimental problems.

In spite of a number of contretemps, with the help of Van and of an understanding recruiter, Deming Lewis, who seemed to be the only person who believed me when I said I had solved my problem and wanted to do something else, I got to Bell Laboratories to work with the constellation of theorists who were then there: Bill Shockley, John Bardeen, Charles Kittel, Conyers Herring, Gregory Wannier, Larry Walker, John Richardson, and later others. Kittel in particular fostered my interest in linebroadening problems and introduced Wannier and me to antiferromagnetism, while Wannier taught me many fundamental techniques, and Herring put me in touch with the ideas of Landau and Mott and kept us all abreast of the literature in general. I learned crystallography and solid state physics from Bill Shockley, Alan Holden, and Betty Wood. And I learned most of all the Bell mode of close experiment theory teamwork – at first with Jack Galt, Bill Yager, Bernd Matthias, and Walter Merz.

Much of the rest is a matter of record. One important experience was Ryogo Kubo’s convincing the Japanese in 1952 that they should invite as their first Fulbright scholar in physics an unknown 28-year-old. This Sabbatical was postponed to 1953, the year of the Kyoto International Theoretical Physics Conference, which was dominated by Mott as the president of IUPAP, and was my first meeting with many other friends of later years. Lecturing has never come easily to me, but I gave, as best I could, lectures on magnetism and a seminar on linebroadening which included Kubo, Toru Moriya, Kei Yosida, Jun Kanamori, among other wellknown Japanese solid staters. I acquired an admiration for Japanese culture, art, and architecture, and learned of the existence of the game of GO, which I still play.

Another milestone for me was a year at the Cavendish Laboratory and Churchill College (1961-62), which was not at Oxford because Brian Pippard promised me that I could lecture and that the lectures would be attended. Mott kept asking me what my 1958 paper meant, and there were a lot of discussions centered around broken symmetry and some ideas of Brian Josephson, who attended my lectures.

When he left Princeton for Illinois in 1959, David Pines bequeathed me a French student named Pierre Morel; Morel and I worked in 1959-61 on some unconventional ideas on anisotropic superfluidity I had, which became related to He3 by discussions with Keith Brueckner; later we worked on solving the Eliashberg equations for superconductivity. Some of these ideas came to fruition working with a young experimentalist, John Rowell, on my return to Bell: we discovered the Josephson effect and worked on “phonon bumps”.

In 1967 Nevill Mott managed what must have been a most difficult arrangement to steer through the Cambridge system: a permanent “Visiting Professorship” for two terms out of three at the Cavendish. This arrangement would have been totally impossible without the self-effacing and unsparing cooperation of Volker Heine who joined with me in leading the “TCM Group” (Theory of Condensed Matter) for eight productive and exciting years, spiced with warm encounters with students, visitors and associates from literally the four corners of the earth. One of our brainchildren is a still viable Science and Society course. Through the good offices of John Adkins, Jesus College gave me a Fellowship for this period. A souvenir of those years is a small cottage on the cliffs of Cornwall, where Joyce and I spend a spring month every year, hiking and seeing friends. After eight years the sense of being tourists in each of two cultures, with no really satisfactory role in either, led us reluctantly to return to the United States, and in 1975 the job at Cambridge was replaced with a half-time appointment at Princeton.

The years since the Nobel Prize have been productive ones for me. For instance, in 1978, shortly after receiving the prize in part for localization theory, I was one of the “Gang of Four” (with Elihu Abrahams, T.V. Ramakrishnan, and Don Licciardello) who revitalized that theory by developing a scaling theory which made it into a quantitative experimental science with precise predictions as a function of magnetic field, interactions, dimensionality, etc.; a major branch of science continues to flow from the consequences of this work. (Most recently, “photon localization” has been in th news.)

In 1975 S.F. (now Sir Sam) Edwards and I wrote down the “replica” theory of the phenomenon I had earlier named “spin glass”, followed up in ’77 by a paper of D.J. Thouless, my student Richard Palmer, and myself. A brilliant further breakthrough by G. Toulouse and G. Parisi led to a full solution of the problem, which turned out to entail a new form of statistical mechanics of wide applicability in fields as far apart as computer science, protein folding, neural networks, and evolutionary modelling, to all of which directions my students and/or I contributed. The field of quantum valence fluctuations was another older interest which became much more active during this period, partly as a consequence of my own efforts.

Finally, in early 1987 the news of the new “high-Tc” cuprate superconductors galvanized the world of many-body quantum physics, and led many of us to reexamine older ideas and dig for new ones. Putting together a cocktail of older ideas of my own (the “RVB” singlet pair fluid state) and of many others, mixed with brand new insights, I have been able to arrive at an account of most of the wide variety of unexpected anomalies observed in these materials. The theory involves a new state of matter (the two-dimensional “Luttinger liquid”) and a quite new mechanism for electron pairing (“deconfinement”). Experimental confirmations of the predictions of this theory are appearing regularly.

The prize seemed to change my professional life very little. Management chores at AT&T Bell Labs continued and culminated in an informal arrangement as consultant for the new Vice President of Research, Arno Penzias, during the first two years of his tenure, which coincided with the first difficult years of “divestiture” for the AT&T company. I thereupon gratefully retired in 1984 from Bell and am now full-time Joseph Henry Professor of Physics at Princeton. I served a 5-year stint as Chairman of the Board of the Aspen Center for Physics, retiring 3 years ago, and for 4 years was on the Council and Executive Committee of the American Physical Society. Since 1986 or so I have been deeply involved (though officially I am merely a co-vice-chairman) with a new, interdisciplinary institution, the Sante Fe Institute, dedicated to emerging scientific syntheses, especially those involving the sciences of complexity. Two other Nobelists are involved: Murray Gell-Mann, who is our science board chairman and an eloquent spokesperson for our ideas and ideals; and Ken Arrow, with whom I cochaired the workshops founding our interdisciplinary study of the bases of economic theory. My own work in spin glass and its consequences has formed some of the intellectual basis for these interests.

The Nobel Prize gives one the opportunity to take public stands. I happened to be in a position to be caught up in the campaign against “Star Wars” very early (summer ’83) and wrote, spoke and testified repeatedly, with my finest moment a debate with Secretary George Schultz in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, reprinted in Le Monde in 1987. I have also testified repeatedly and published some articles in favor of Small Science.

Some further honors after the Nobel Prize of which I am particularly conscious were the National Medal of Science; an ScD from my father’s, mother’s, sister’s and wife’s Alma Mater, the University of Illinois; foreign membership in the Royal Society, the Accademia Lincei, and the Japan Academy; and honorary fellowship of Jesus College, Cambridge.

We have kept our cottage on the cliffs of Cornwall, and our custom of seeing English and other friends in April there. We abandoned our much loved house, designed by Joyce, in New Vernon near Bell Labs for another of her good designs on some brushy acres with a view across the Hopewell Valley near Princeton. Susan is established as a painter in Boston of, at the moment, primarily scenes of Martha’s Vineyard, and teaching some drawing classes at MIT. A prize of which I am, vicariously, enormously proud is the designation as Northeast U.S. Tree Farmers of the Year earned by my sister and her husband of New Milford, Pa in 1990.

From Nobel Lectures, Physics 1971-1980, Editor Stig Lundqvist, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1977

Addendum, April 2005

I retired to emeritus status in 1996, after spending a sabbatical year as Eastman Professor in Balliol College Oxford in 1993-4. In 2000 I gave up contract funding but am still active in research and writing, mainly book reviews, many of which appear in the Higher Education Supplement of the Times of London. I retired from the Steering Committee of SFI in 2001. We sold the house in Cornwall in 2003.

My main interest scientifically continues to be high Tc superconductivity. The theory I was so enthusiastic about in 1990 was shown experimentally to be incorrect, and I had to revert to an earlier version (actually first promulgated by several younger associates in 1988) which has been revived and seems to pass the crucial tests. (Though it is not consensual, the field being in a state which I call “epistemological trainwreck”.)

Among further honors I have received are the Centennial Medal of the GSAS at Harvard, and honorary degrees from the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris (historically #1 from that institution, thanks to having an “A” name) and the University of Tokyo (actually, their #2); also, the John Bardeen prize at the “M2S” conference, the major international conference on superconductivity.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2005


Philip W. Anderson died on 29 March 2020.

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