This year's winners of the Nobel Prize for physics collectively discovered and described a phenomenon that appears to defy common sense. Fewer notions could be so intuitively valid as the following: smaller things are generated by breaking bigger things apart. The world of physics usually bears this out: An atom, for example, divides into electrons, protons, and neutrons; a proton splits into quarks. But in 1982, Daniel Tsui, a professor of physics at Princeton University, and Horst Stormer, a professor of physics and applied physics at Columbia University and the adjunct director of physical sciences at Bell Laboratories' Physical Science Division in Murray Hill, N.J., observed the impossible. They were looking for something called the electron crystal, an as-yet-unproved theory that electrons will crystallize when placed in strong magnetic fields and low temperatures. In the process, they accidentally discovered that under these same conditions electrons will actually form...

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