Ivar Giaever is a noted Norwegian-American physicist, known for his work on tunneling phenomenon in solids for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973. He spent his early life in Norway, where he was born into a middle class family in the first half of the twentieth century. After earning his degree in mechanical engineering from one of Norway’s biggest and best-known universities, he migrated to Canada at the age of twenty-five and joined the Canadian unit of General Electric. Very soon, he was transferred to the company’s American unit and from there he completed the company’s engineering course. Subsequently, he was sent to the General Electric Research and Development Center at New York and while working here, his interest turned towards physics. He soon took up his Nobel Prize winning work on tunneling through superconductors. Concurrently, he also started working for his PhD at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Interestingly, he completed his Nobel Prize winning work four years before he earned his PhD. Dr. Giaever became a US citizen in 1964, but maintained close contact with Norway. After retiring from General Electric, he concurrently served the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York and the University of Oslo, Norway as faculty member. He now serves as a member of many distinguished societies.
Childhood & Early Life
Ivar Giaever was born on April 5, 1929 in Bergen, Norway into a middle class family. His father, John A. Giaever, was a pharmacist in the town of Totem. Ivar spent a large part of his childhood in this town.
He began his elementary education at Totem; later he shifted to Hamar, where he completed his secondary education. In 1947, after passing out from school, he joined Raufoss Munition Factories, working there for one year.
In 1948, he entered Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet), located at Trondheim. It was the biggest university in Norway with a special emphasis on engineering courses. There he studied mechanical engineering and received his degree in 1952.
In 1953, he completed his military obligation, serving as a corporal in the Norwegian Army. Thereafter, he took employment under the Norwegian Government and worked as a patent examiner for another year. In 1954, he migrated to Canada.
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In Canada, Ivar Giaever began his career as an assistant to an architect; but very soon he changed his job and took employment under Canadian unit of General Electric. Here he joined the company’s Advanced Engineering Program.
In 1956, he was transferred to the General Electric Company's American unit. Working as an applied mathematician on various assignments, he completed the company’s A, B and C engineering courses.
In 1958, he was again transferred to the General Electric Research and Development Center at Schenectady, New York. While working here, his interest turned towards physics. Also in 1958, he entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York, for his doctoral work in physics.
At General Electric Research and Development Center, Giaever began working in the fields of thin films, tunneling and superconductivity. By now, Japanese physicist, Leo Esaki, had discovered electron tunneling in semiconductors. Giaever now began working in the same direction.
In 1960, he established that tunneling also took place in superconductors. He conducted the experiment with a thin layer of oxide, coated with layers of superconducting metals. The experiment also demonstrated the existence of an energy gap, which is an energy range where no electron states can exist.
In 1964, Giaever earned his PhD in physics and continued working on tunneling. In 1969, his interest turned to biophysics. On receiving Guggenheim Fellowship, he traveled to England and spent one year at the Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, working on biophysics.
In 1970, he returned to General Electric Research and Development Center, where he continued working on biophysics. In the following year, he began his work on the behavior of protein molecules at solid surfaces and the interaction of cells with surfaces.
In May 1973, he was elected a Coolidge Fellow at General Electric for this work. Also in the same year, he received his Nobel Prize. In his own words, “The Nobel Prize opened a lot of doors, but also provided me with many distractions”.
Nonetheless, he continued his work on biophysics, trying to use physical methods and thoughts to solve biological problems. In 1988, he left General Electric and joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as an Institute Professor. Concurrently he also served as a Professor at the University of Oslo, Norway. .
Among his later work, his studies on the motion of mammalian cells in tissue culture by growing both normal and cancerous cells on small electrodes are most significant. Besides, he has been elected to a number of important panels and has served on committees for several international conferences.
Giaever is best known for his 1960 work on tunneling. Amalgamating the superconductor technology with Esaki’s work in tunneling he demonstrated that electrons can pass like waves of radiation through “holes” in solid-state devices. His work defied the conventional limitations of superconductors.
Awards & Achievements
In 1973, Ivar Giaever, along with Leo Esaki and Brian D. Josephson, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “for their experimental discoveries regarding tunneling phenomena in semiconductors and superconductors, respectively". Esaki and Josephson had independently worked on the same subject.
He has also been awarded the Oliver E. Buckley Prize by the American Physical Society in 1965, and the Zworykin Award by the National Academy of Engineering in 1974..
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1954, Ivar Giaever married Inger Skramstad. The couple has four children and several grandchildren.
Giaever was elected a member of the Executive Committee of the Solid State division in American Physical Society. However, when the Society endorsed the view that global warming is “incontrovertible”, he gave up his membership saying that nothing in science is “incontrovertible” and that the man-made global warming is a "new religion."