Who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics?

By Jeff Bairstow

That’s a very serious question, believe you me. The winners of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics barely made a minor dent in the major media in the U.S. Coverage was so minimal that when I posed the question to several well-educated friends, none of them could recollect the names of the 2007 physics laureates. For the record, neither could I.

So, just who from the rarefied field of big-time physics research was crowned in 2007 for what might be called the “World Series” of Physics? To whom did the august Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences dish out $1.5 million, following the bequest of Swedish explosives manufacturer Alfred Nobel? But, wait, there’s more.

Can you name the two 2007 recipients who followed in the eminent footsteps of such outstanding scientists as Wilhelm Röntgen, Guglielmo Marconi, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, the Braggs (father and son), Charles Townes, Arthur Schawlow and Jack Kilby?

You give in already? You could look it up; I did. Just go to the Nobel Prize web site www.nobelprize.org. Or, much to my surprise, you could also go to the Nobel Prize channel on YouTube (www.youtube.com/user/thenobelprize). The channel was started in September 2007 in an effort to publicize the Nobel Prize organization and its laureates to a younger audience. That’s cool, but I digress.

(And now, a roll of drums, please). And the winners were ... Dr. Albert Fert, of the Université Paris-Sud, Orsay, France, and Dr. Peter Grünberg, of the Institute of Solid-State Research at the Jülich Research Center in Germany. And now for extra credit, just what did these two guys actually do to win the big N? Give in there, too?

The two researchers, each working independently, back in 1988, discovered an effect now called “giant magnetoresistance” (I’ll use the acronym “GMR” for short), in which tiny changes in a magnetic field can produce huge swings in electrical resistance. This GMR effect has since led to the miniaturization of the disk drives used in portable music players such as the ubiquitous Apple iPod. However, isn’t solid-state flash memory replacing the tiny disks of music players?

The Nobel citation said that the work of the two investigators also heralded the advent of an even smaller and denser type of memory storage called “spintronics,” in which information is stored and processed by manipulating the spins of electrons. That technique has yet to result in a marketable product, to the best of my knowledge.

Maybe we’re just not seeing Nobel nominees who can measure up to the greats of the past? Think you could do better? You might like to try reading a book published quite recently, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize, (Columbia University Press, New York, NY; 2006) by Dr. Peter Doherty, chairman of the Department of Immunology, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, TN.

While not exactly a “how-to” guide book, this extended and amusing memoir does show how the path to a Nobel can be rocky and winding. Doherty was a 1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine winner jointly with Rolf Zinkernagel of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, for their discovery of how the immune system recognizes virus-infected cells.

A similar but rather more serious memoir that I would recommend is, How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life, by Nobel Laureate Michael Bishop (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; 2003). Bishop, who is currently the chancellor of the University of California at San Francisco, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1989 with Harold Varmus, also of the University of California School of Medicine, for their very significant discovery that normal genes can cause cancer under certain conditions.

By the way, the best mainstream U.S. media coverage, by far, of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics was by Shankar Vedantam, a staff writer for the Washington Post’s Technology Section (“Data Storage Discovery Earns Nobel,” Oct. 10, 2007, p. A03). The New York Times had a much weaker story and the TV networks offered even less. Was the award of half the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore a more worthy news story?

Not in my view.

Click here to enlarge image

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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