NOBEL THOUGHTS -- Horst Stormer


Horst Störmer

Profound insights of the laureates

by Marc Abrahams

Horst Störmer

Horst Störmer is a research physicist at Bell Laboratories and at Columbia University. In 1998 he, Robert B. Laughlin, and Daniel Tsui were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics "for their discovery of a new form of quantum fluid with fractionally charged excitations."

You spend a lot of time in New York City.

I live there.

How often do you ride the subway?

Not that often. It's actually strange, because I'm probably one of the few people in Manhattan that drives a car. I live down in the Village, and I even drive my car up to Columbia, which you'd think is sort of a crazy, crazy thing to do.

Have you developed some special techniques?

Sure. Avoid the potholes. That's the most important technique that you can develop in New York City.

How do you do that?

Well, you have a feedback mechanism. Nothing special. What any person does, I think, in avoiding a pothole. Turn the wheel. And there is of course something else. You see, after a while, like you know how many steps it is to the john, you know the potholes. You get sort of programmed, and you know, even in the dark, where the potholes are, and automatically veer around them.

Have you ever driven that route in the dark, or with your eyes closed?

No, I haven't. Ever tempted? No. This is New York. Yellow cabs all around you. I don't think you want to try that. They are unpredictable.

How do you co-exist with the cabs?

Every night it's a fight, either when I come in from New Jersey (and that's the reason why I keep my car: because I'm at Ball Labs every now and then), or coming back from Columbia. It's just a fight with the cabs. I drive a little Honda Civic and I very often feel engulfed by a sea of yellow. I'm trying to survive, sticking my head out of the yellow wave. It's really true: cab drivers are wild. But it's a really old Civic, and therefore I'm not worried about any kind of dents in it. I think they see that. They can see this is a banged up car. Thinking about the fight, they would win it because they're bigger, but then again they have to go back home to their boss and tell them why they have these dents. I don't have to do that. So some of these fights I win.

Have you learned anything from them?

Don't blink. You just look straight, and GO! They are professionals. They know when to brake.

Do you ever make eye contact with them?

Afterwards. When you've won. When you've won, you sort of look over with a smile on your face. It drives them crazy.

Have cab drivers chased you after you've defeated them?

Chased? No, I'm too fast for them. I've had people shout at me.

What did they shout? In what languages?

You don't know. It's just loud, typically. If you drive in the city that often, you must have developed some skill at finding parking places. Absolutely!

I know you won a Nobel Prize in physics, but this is a harder problem. How did you solve it?

It's a challenge. That's why I'm driving an old, banged up car -- because I'm parking in the street. I figure that I'm never going to pay more for parking than the lease for a car. And in New York, you have to pay more for parking than to lease a decent car. So every night I try to find a parking space. It's a real challenge, and usually I succeed. Almost all the time I've been living in New York, about five years full-time now, I've been able to find a space. When they have a parade or something I have to go into a garage, but otherwise I find a space. And then of course there's alternate side parking. Till eight o'clock you're fine, but then you have to move your car. Which is actually not bad; it gets you out of bed, and going. You do develop strategies. For example, you know how to drive fast down a road, and not mistake hydrants for parking spots. I know where the hydrants are. And also, parking spots are very rare. So the probability of finding two parking spots next to each other is very rare. It goes like n squared. And typically in front of a hydrant you have about two openings -- it's about two parking spots long. So you can go relatively fast. You don't have to look at those where there's two behind each other. So you only go for spots where there's one. That's great, because a lot of people that don't realize that drive slow, and you can overtake them, and then you're in front of them, and you can see the whole street. That really gives you a big advantage, because all these parking spots are waiting for you, rather than for the person who you just overtook.

How often has your car been towed?

Once, because it broke down. I've paid two tickets for seventy-five bucks.

That's it?


My, you're good.

It's not that I'm good. I'm just there... at eight o'clock. I was there once at eight fifteen, and Bingo! I had a ticket. Up to eight-ten you're clean. The other challenge is the Holland Tunnel, through which I go a lot.

What's your solution to that?

There's really no solution there, but it tells you something about one-dimensionality. It makes a hell of a big difference if you're in a one-dimensional system or in a two-dimensional system. Which turns out to be the physical system that I'm studying, anyway. These mornings when I drive through the Holland Tunnel I have a bodily experience of what it means to be one dimensional. It's worse during the weekends, because all the Saturday and Sunday drivers are in the tunnel, and they're just nuts. They drive to a different drummer. But you learn about one-dimensionality -- one accident, and you're dead.

So would you encourage all physics students to spend time in the Holland tunnel?

Yes, I think so. If you get stuck in the Holland tunnel, you've got nothing to do, and your mind is going. So I was stuck in the tunnel, and I figured -- we're working on one dimensional systems which are about 250 angstroms wide by about 170 angstroms thick, and about twenty micons long, something like that. I sat there and figured out that the aspect ratio of the Holland Tunnel is just about the same as the 1-D electronic system that we're making, and I really started to appreciate that these are ONE-dimensional, because of you sit in the tunnel. So there's even a deep physical insight that you can have.

To what extent is the Holland Tunnel responsible for your winning a Nobel Prize?

In the sense that if I didn't traverse the tunnel, I wouldn't have gotten to work every morning. So I wouldn't have gotten the Prize without it.

What advice do you have for young people entering your field?

Go for lunch. Here at Bell Labs, that's good advice. I've learned more physics over lunch than I've learned at any other time. At universities it's a little bit harder. Nevertheless, let your mind go and think off the beaten track.


This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue (vol. 6, no. 2) of Annals of Improbable Research (AIR).

This article first appeared in AIR 6:2. For a complete list of HotAIR exclusive features, see What's New.