Ivar Giaever

Engineer, Physicist, Nobel Laureate

Dr. Giaever has advanced the field of physics in the area of superconductors, thin films, and biophysics.


Ivar Giaever was born in Bergen, Norway, April 5, 1929, the second of three children. He grew up in Toten where his father was a pharmacist. He was graduated from the Norwegian Institute of Technology in 1952 with a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1953, Giaever completed his military duty as a corporal in the Norwegian Army, and thereafter he was employed for a year as a patent examiner for the Norwegian Government.

Giaever emigrated to Canada in 1954 and after a short period as an architect's aide he joined Canadian General Electric's Advanced Engineering Program. In 1956, he emigrated to the USA where he completed GE’s A, B, and C engineering courses and then worked in various assignments as an applied mathematician. He joined the GE Research and Development Center in Niskayuna, NY, Schenectady County, in 1958 and concurrently began graduate study at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, where he earned his Ph.D. degree in physics in 1964. He became a naturalized US citizen the same year.

From 1958 to 1969 Dr. Giaever worked in the fields of thin films, tunneling and superconductivity. In 1965 he was awarded the Oliver E. Buckley Prize for some pioneering work combining tunneling and superconductivity. In 1969 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and thereupon spent one year in Cambridge, England studying biophysics. Since returning to the Research and Development Center in 1970, Dr. Giaever has spent most of his effort studying the behavior of protein molecules at solid surfaces. In recognition of his work he was elected a Coolidge fellow at General Electric in May, 1973.

While working as a physicist at the R&D Center in Niskayuna in 1960, four years before earning his doctorate, Ivar Giaever conceived the idea of using electron tunneling to measure the energy gap in a superconductor. This technique, disclosed in a pathbreaking paper, both provided a new method for studying superconductivity and opened the possibility of a new class of electronic devices. The importance of the work was highlighted by the award of a 1973 Nobel Prize, shared with Leo Esaki and Brian D. Josephson.

Below: Video: Dr. Giaever explains how Quantum Tunneling Works

"The Nobel Prize is the highest honor that a scientist can receive, and we are delighted that the Nobel Committee has this year recognized Dr. Giaever's outstanding contributions to the study of phenomena that occur at temperatures near absolute zero," said Dr. Arthur M. Bueche, GE vice president for research and development. "The only other GE scientist to receive a Nobel Prize was the late Dr. Irving Langmuir, who won the award for chemistry in 1932," Dr. Bueche pointed out. GE Chairman of the Board Reginald H. Jones said that it was highly appropriate that today, October 23rd, 1973, was the 100th birthday of one of GE’s greatest scientists, Dr. William D. Coolidge, who also lived in Niskayuna.

Photo: General Electric

Dr. Giaever is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and of the Biophysical Society, and he is a Fellow of the American Physical Society. In addition to his position as Institute Professor of Engineering and Science at RPI, Dr. Giaever is professor at large at the University of Oslo in Norway and is also president of the Applied BioPhysics Institute in Troy, NY, near RPI.

At the time of his Nobel award and to the present day, Dr. Giaever and his wife Inger have lived in Niskayuna. Shortly after GE held its recognition reception, the Niskayuna Town Supervisor, Dr. Edwin D. Reilly, declared an “Ivar Giaever Day” in his honor. Dr. Reilly had studied under the same professors at RPI as had Dr. Giaever, but received his Ph.D. in physics five years later. But although they lived less than a mile apart, they had not met until they discovered that they had both written letters on the same subject that appeared in the same issue of Physics Today. Upon notification of his town’s proclamation, Dr. Giaever called the Supervisor and said, “Thanks, Ed, but tell me. Exactly what does one do on Ivar Giaever Day?”

Related Topics:

Documentary: Wizards of Schenectady: Carl H. Rosner - Pioneer in Superconductors


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Interview with Ivar Giaever. Edison Tech Center. 2007
Edwin Reilly Jr.

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