Nobel-Prize-winning physics professor offers more than meets eye

By Nandika Chatterjee, Staff Writer

When Anthony Legget reached the end of his undergraduate degree in humanities at Oxford, he decided to pursue another undergraduate degree in physics. Despite having only taken high school physics, Legget aimed to complete the program in two years instead of three.

Today, Legget is a physics professor at the University and a Nobel Prize winner for his work in physics. In 2004, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to his field.

As a physics theorist, Leggett says his work focuses on the physics of interaction and attraction of microscopic bodies, quantum and metaphysics. Leggett is drawn to this subject area for its intellectual stimulation and hands-on work.

“Unlike a lot of topics, at least until fairly recently, in cosmology, it’s a subject where you can actually do experiments,” he said.

Much of Leggett’s work over the last 30 years has focused on whether or not he could build Schrodinger’s cat in a laboratory. The system is required to have two different states which are microscopically different like the living and dead stages of Schrodinger’s cat. He said that they wanted to prove “that one may possibly be able to exhibit the fact that the system was not in one state or the other, it was in some sort of quantum superposition.”

His and his colleagues’ papers were initially met with skepticism by other academics but were gradually accepted by these same individuals in time. Legget hypothesizes if the experiment were to be shifted to take place on a bigger scale, such as that of a cat, a mishap would more likely happen.

According to Professor Leggett for the last 15-20 years, experimenters have been successfully completing the experiment. Although they have not yet been able to extend the experiment to scale large objects, the future is looking bright.

Dipankar Home, theoretical physicist and senior scientist at the Platinum Jubilee Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, India, collaborated with Leggett on numerous accounts.

“In the coming years, such contributions of Professor Leggett will surely have ever increasing deep-seated ramifications,” Home said.

Leggett said there are two individuals who completely changed the course of his life. The first person was father Charles O’Hare, a desert priest and a retired University professor of mathematics.

O’Hare noticed this and said he had the feeling Leggett had a lot of time on his hands. Given that, he invited him to visit his office a couple of hours a week. During this time Leggett learned about interesting things about advanced mathematics.

Leggett credits influential individuals who changed the course of his life. He cites a former Soviet general as one of the people who helped him achieve success. When he was trying to apply for his second degree, there were many hurdles he had to overcome.

He had to be accepted, needed a scholarship and wanted to avoid being drafted. He overcame his first two hurdles but struggled to avoid the real difficulty: the draft.

“This was the last year of the intake of the draft,” he said. “I had already been deferred for four years for my undergraduate. Here I came asking for two more to complete a physics degree.”

The general was the head of the team of Soviet engineers that put up the first Sputnik in October of 1957. From the journalists and the politicians across the UK, all were struck by how the Soviet Union was able to get ahead in the Space Race. They concluded that the country had allowed its best and brightest students to study “useless” areas like classics instead of physics, according to Leggett.

Leggett convinced the draft board that he would be more useful to the country if he were to obtain a science degree.

Legget first met O’Hare as a college student.

During Leggett’s time in secondary school, O’Hare invited him to learn more about his field of study: advanced mathematics. Legget learned about problem-solving from O’Hare.

“What I think really made a difference is that not only encouraged me to read the material, but also solve problems,” Legget said.  While at the time Professor Leggett was unsure of why someone such as himself was doing, solving these mathematical problems.

Leggett quickly found he enjoyed solving problems. It wasn’t until years later when Leggett was studying physics in his second undergraduate degree that he rediscovered his passion for quantitive thinking. He cites O’Hare for helping him find this passion.

“I could have never done it without him,” Leggett said.

Raza Tahir-Kheli, another one of Leggett’s connections said with Legget’s brilliance, he was destined for higher things.

“What I find most striking is the way he combines his deep thoughts on conceptual issues with pragmatic analysis linking the conceptual questions with hard-core experiments,” Home said.

Leggett’s unique academic background still plays a role in his work in more ways than one.

“I’ve learned so much from the artistic way he brings out the physical content of a mathematical treatment and identifies the hidden subtle assumptions in a treatment,” Home said.

Shin Takagi, another fellow theorist who connected with Leggett, said Leggett has a lot of characteristics that make him successful.

“(His) excellence lies not only in his physics itself but also in his subtle philosophical way of presentation, which makes his papers all the more illuminating and enlightening,” Takagi said.

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