A standout technology prize

The Nobel Prize award ceremony, Stockholm, 2007.
The Nobel Prize award ceremony, Stockholm, 2007. Image: nobelprize.org

Once a year, the Nobel Prize in physics triggers a burst of science news coverage in the media, giving some decades-old invention or discovery more than its 15 minutes’ due on a channel, paper or portal that might have otherwise never bothered about it. Despite its abundant quirks, the prize, the consequent celebration and the subsequent snubs do make for good news.

But this year’s prize may have been a little different. It was awarded to the inventors of the blue-light-emitting diodes (blue LEDs). LEDs that emit the two other primary colors, green and red, were easier to produce. The higher frequency blue emitter proved to be the stumbling block before this year’s Japanese and American Laureates succeeded in the late 1980s. By combining the three colors, the white LED emerged and became the device to, as the Nobel Prize Committee is only too happy to proclaim, power the 21st century.

The reason it’s different is because it draws attention to an arguably understated engineering development. The Nobel Prize Committee has not had any a perceptible bias toward or against engineering, specifically materials science. The 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2010 physics prizes, to choose from the last decade, lauded accomplishments in engineering/materials science. However, unlike this year’s recipient, those accomplishments became very popular and entered mainstream public consciousness by the time their significance had been recognized for a Nobel Prize. In fact, that has been the attitude of most prize-winning discoveries: scientifically significant as well as being novelty heavyweights.

In contrast, this year’s prize was more for the achievement of synthesizing gallium-nitride (GaN), the compound semiconductor at the heart of blue LEDs and whose success story hasn’t quite been one for the romantic science books. It’s possible that it could be the blue LED – or LEDs for that matter – didn’t need romanticization, that the pursuit for it has already been justified to the common man by giving him a cheap, “energy-saving” light-bulb. It could be its technology was so sought-after that it was only too successful in transcending the boundaries between discovery and mass utilization.

Since it was first awarded in 1901, the Nobel Prize in physics has recognized 114 discoveries (75%) and but only 39 inventions (25%; including blue LEDs)*. On the other hand, this century has seen a higher incidence of inventors among Laureates as well as recognizes more and more recent inventions. The blue LEDs (2014) emerged in the late 1980s; Wineland and Haroche’s particle-manipulators (2012) were used in the late 1980s; graphene (2010) was first produced in 2003; the CCD sensor (2009) was invented in 1969; the frequency comb (2005) was perfected in the 1990s; the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensates (2001) was in 1995; and so forth.

This may well be the Nobel Prize in physics Committee’s way of acknowledging the dominance of technology. It could also be our window to understanding how award-winning science of the previous century is shaping the award-winning technology of the last three decades.

*Determined based on Nobel Prize citations. For Laureates whose citations were ambiguous, such as “contributed to the development of”, etc., the nature of work was assumed to be both an invention as well as a discovery.