Every October, physics makes the news with the awarding of the Nobel Prize. The work recognized by this most prestigious award often seems far removed from our daily lives, with awards given for things like “optical methods for studying Hertzian resonances in atoms” And “elucidate the quantum structure of electroweak interactions“.
However, these lauded advances in our fundamental understanding of the world often have very real practical consequences for society.
To take just a few examples, Nobel Prize-winning physics has given us laptop computers, efficient LED lighting, climate modeling, and cancer radiation therapy.
Thin magnets and laptops
In 2007, the Nobel Prize in Physics was jointly awarded to Peter Grünberg and Albert Fert for the discovery of “giant magnetoresistance“.
In the late 1980s, Grünberg and Fert (and their research groups) were independently studying very thin layers of magnets. They both noticed that electricity flowed differently through the layers depending on the direction of the magnetic fields.
These teams sought to understand the fundamental properties of very thin magnets. However, their discoveries led to something we now take for granted: laptops.
At the time, most computers stored information on a hard drive made of magnetic material. To read information from the reader, a very small and very precise magnetic field sensor is required.
The discovery of giant magnetoresistance allowed the development of much more sensitive sensors, which made hard drives and computers smaller. (Today, magnetic hard drives are being overtaken by even smaller drives. solid state drives.)
In short, we wouldn’t have laptops without the discovery that won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007.
The effect of this research – like that of so much basic research – was completely unexpected.
A lightbulb moment
Sometimes, however, physics research has always had a practical goal. One such example is the search for energy-efficient lighting.
Old incandescent bulbs are very inefficient. Because they work by heating a wire until it glows, they waste a lot of energy as heat. In fact, less than 10% of the energy they consume goes into producing light.
In the 1980s, scientists realized that light-emitting diodes, or LEDs – small electronic components that emit light of a specific color – would make more efficient light sources. But there was a problem. Although red and green LEDs were developed in the mid-20th century, no one knew how to make a blue LED.
LEDs are thin sandwiches of materials that react to electricity in a very particular way. When an electron moves from one energy level to another within the material, it emits light of a specific color.
All three colors of light (red, green and blue) would be needed to produce the type of white light people want in their homes and workplaces.
In the early 1990s, after nearly 30 years of work by numerous groups, the missing blue LEDs were found. In 2014, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura received the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovery.
The layers of materials chosen to compose the sandwich, as well as the quality of each layer, had to be refined in order to manufacture the first blue LED. Since the initial discovery, materials scientists have continued to improve design and manufacturing to make blue LEDs more efficient.
Lighting accounts for up to 20 percent of total electricity consumption. LEDs use approximately one sixth of energy like incandescent bulbs. They also last much longer, with a lifespan of around 25,000 hours.
Climate models, radiation and beyond
Environmental efforts probably aren’t what comes to mind when you think of the Nobel Prize in physics. Another example also comes to mind: the study of a chaotic and complex system that is of great importance to all of us: the Earth’s climate.
Half of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann, scientists who developed early models of Earth’s weather and climate. Their work also linked global warming to human activity.
Of the 222 people awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics since 1901, only three were women. Perhaps the most famous of these is Marie Curie, who won a quarter of the prize in 1903.
Curie’s work to understand how atoms can decay into other types of atoms, thereby producing nuclear radiation, profoundly changed life in the 20th century.
The study of nuclear radiation led to the development of nuclear weapons, but also to radiotherapy against cancer. Additionally, this led to carbon-14 dating to determine the age of objects, which allows us to better understand ancient civilizations.
So when we know who will receive the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics, for whatever reason – and the prospects include research into quantum computing, “slow light” and “self-assembled matter” – we can be sure of one thing. The prized research will likely end up affecting our lives in extraordinary ways that might not be apparent at first.
Karen Livesey is a lecturer in physics at the University of Newcastle. This piece first appeared on The conversation.