Nobel Laureate Albert Fert educates students, professors on magnetism

Julia Trowbridge

man speaks to students
Dr. Albert Fret speaks to students in the Lory Student Center about his research on the giant magnetoresistance effect which won him the Nobel Prize in 2007. (Brooke Buchan | Collegian)

Nobel Laureate Albert Fert spent a couple days at Colorado State University speaking to scientists with all ranges of education, from undergraduates to professors, about the field of magnetism and his contributions to it.

Fert is best known for his discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect, which he won the Nobel Prize for in 2007. The giant magnetoresistance effect is a large change in how easily electricity flows in layered magnetic and non magnetic materials depending on whether the magnetic materials point in the same or different directions. 

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“There were a lot of things I realized I had to do (after I won the Nobel Prize),” Fert said. “I realized this is a change of the life, I have a lot of new responsibilities.”

Fert initially did not know he wanted to become a scientist, but while studying at a college level, he became impressed with his physics professor who studied magnetism, which guided the rest of Fert’s career in the same field.

“I was more attracted to the arts,” Fert said. “I thought it would be a more creative job. My general feeling was that science was not what I was going to do in the future.”

Fert’s discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect has given significant contributions in applications of the effect in addition to the fundamental understanding. The giant magnetoresistance effect, which resists the electricity flow by around 400 percent larger than a normal magnetoresistance effect, is fundamental for memory storage on hard drives and revolutionized computer memory.

Currently, Fert is involved in the field of spintronics, the study of an intrinsic spin and magnetic moment of an electron. Fert specifically focuses on magnetic skyrmions, which in a theoretical paper he published in 2009, has been integral to the advancement of this field.

Skyrmions can be described as nanoscale magnetic vortices and are topologically protected spins, which means that they cannot revert to their original state.

“A simple way to describe it is in terms of knots,” said Kate Ross, a physics professor at CSU who studies frustrated and quantum magnetism. “if you tie a knot and then fuse the two ends of the rope, you can’t get the knot out without cutting the rope. You can move the knot around but can’t undo it. It’s topologically stable.”

Skyrmions can be applicable in more compact memory storage due to their twisted magnetic structure. Research in this field is currently consistent on the fundamental properties in order to hopefully improve the field of magnetism like the discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect did in 2007.

Fert sees scientific research as a creative job and hopes that the students see it in the same way. According to Fert, research is like making ideas come to life, which leads to greater discoveries and recognition of those discoveries.

“For me, doing physics and research is fascinating and is a real pleasure,” Fert said. “It’s a creative job. I can dream an idea and see it become a reality. The Nobel Prize is the cherry on the cake at the end.”

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Fert stands with Women in Physics and Society of Physics students
Nobel Laureate Albert Fert personally spoke with the Women in Physics and Society of Physics Students at CSU in addition to his other talks. The physics students, and a couple of professors, had a wide variety of questions ranging from his research to his reaction on winning the Nobel Prize. (Julia Trowbridge | Collegian)

Those who attended his talks found some of the information difficult to understand, especially those at an undergraduate level. On the other hand, Fert’s deep understanding of the field of magnetism was very informative to graduate students and professors.

“As a chemist who’s never heard about a lot of this stuff — skyrmions in particular —  it was fascinating to be introduced to this topic by someone who founded the field,” said Christopher Rom, a first year chemistry graduate student. “I really enjoyed it.”

Collegian reporter Julia Trowbridge can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @chapin_jules.