They began lining up outside the New York Hilton's Sutton Ballroom at 5:30 in ^ the afternoon; by the time the doors opened at 6:45, recalls Physicist Randy Simon, a member of TRW's Space and Technology Group, "it was a little bit frightening. There was a surge forward, and I was in front. I walked into the room, but it wasn't under my own power." Recalls Stanford Physicist William Little: "I've never seen anything like it. Physicists are a fairly quiet lot, so to see them elbowing and fighting each other to get into the room was truly remarkable."
Thus began a session of the American Physical Society's annual meeting that was so turbulent, so emotional and so joyous that the prestigious journal Science felt compelled to describe it as a "happening." AT&T Bell Laboratories Physicist Michael Schluter went even further, calling it the "Woodstock of physics." Indeed, at times it resembled a rock concert more than a scientific conference. Three thousand physicists tried to jam themselves into less than half that number of seats set up in the ballroom; the rest either watched from outside on television monitors or, to the dismay of the local fire marshal, crowded the aisles. For nearly eight hours, until after 3 a.m., the assembled scientists listened intently to one five-minute presentation after another, often cheering the speakers enthusiastically. Many lingered until dawn, eagerly discussing what they had heard and seen.
What stirred all the excitement at that tumultuous meeting in March was a discovery that could change the world, a startling breakthrough in achieving an esoteric phenomenon long relegated to the backwaters of science: superconductivity. That discovery, most scientists believe, could lead to incredible savings in energy; trains that speed across the countryside at hundreds of miles per hour on a cushion of magnetism; practical electric cars; powerful, yet smaller computers and particle accelerators; safer reactors operating on nuclear fusion rather than fission and a host of other rewards still undreamed of. There might even be benefits for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which could draw on efficient, superconductor power sources for its space-based weapons.
Superconductivity is aptly named. It involves a remarkable transition that occurs in many metals when they are cooled to temperatures within several degrees of absolute zero, or, as scientists prefer to designate it, 0 Kelvin. Absolute zero, equivalent to -460 degrees F or -273 degrees C, represents a total absence of heat; it is the coldest temperature conceivable. As the + metals approach this frigid limit, they suddenly lose all their electrical resistance and become superconductors. This enables them to carry currents without the loss of any energy and in some cases to generate immensely powerful magnetic fields. Scientists have recognized for years that the implications of this phenomenon could be enormous, but one stubborn obstacle has stood in their way: reaching and maintaining the temperatures necessary for superconductivity in these metals is difficult and in most instances prohibitively expensive.