Data Storage Discovery Earns Nobel
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences yesterday honored two scientists whose discovery revolutionized digital data storage, awarding the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics for work that allows millions to sway to music on their iPods and to store a lifetime's photographs on palm-size devices.
Peter Gruenberg of Germany and Albert Fert of France were recognized for their independent discovery of giant magnetoresistance -- an exotic phenomenon whose practical applications became ubiquitous in everyday life in less than two decades.
Among the results: the palm-size external hard drive that can hold a good chunk of your local library. The iPod that allows you to carry a thousand songs in your pocket. The computing revolution that allows your laptop to hold more information than a 19th-century warehouse.
The Europeans will share about $1.5 million, a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars in wealth they have to helped create in Silicon Valley and around the world.
"It feels great," said Gruenberg in an interview after he won the prize. As usual, Nobel Prize winners were alerted yesterday half an hour ahead of the rest of the world by the academy in Stockholm. When the call came, Gruenberg said, the voice on the other end of the line was extremely faint. He strained to understand what he was being told.
"When I heard the word, 'Stockholm,' I thought, 'That's it! I have won the prize!' " he recalled. Gruenberg and Felt had long been tipped to become Nobelists.
Their discovery that ultra-thin slices of metal have different electrical properties in a magnetic field not only changed the musical and computing habits of the entire planet but also altered the very landscape of how people think about information, and the ways in which music, movies and ideas can be shared.
Packing information into ever-more-compact spaces is at the heart of the success of devices such as the iPod. That success would have been impossible without the scientific discovery honored yesterday.
The phenomenon of giant magnetoresistance or GMR is one of those ideas that seems impossible until someone shows how it can be done, and then it seems obvious. Hundreds of laboratories and companies today are expanding on Fert and Gruenberg's idea, with results more striking than anything they had originally visualized.
Scientists such as Xiaoguang Zhang, a senior researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, described that original discovery as path-breaking.
"It really freed the minds of physicists," Zhang said.
Although giant magnetoresistance does sound a bit like one of those mutants in the "X-Men" movie series, it actually describes a phenomenon at the junction of electricity and magnetism: When two layers of a metal such as iron are separated by a thin layer of another metal such as chromium, the application of a magnetic field can change the resistance of the structure -- which determines how much electricity will flow through it.