Europeans Win Nobel Prize for Physics

The 2007 Nobel Prize in physics will be shared by two Europeans who discovered the physics that allows computer hard drives to compress large amounts of data. The prize was awarded to Albert Fert of France and Peter Grunberg of Germany.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

If you check your e-mail this morning and then saved a bunch of junk on your hard drive, you can thank this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in physics.

The prize goes to two Europeans who discovered the physics that allows your computer's hard drive to pack so much information on them. The - prize was awarded today to Albert Fert of France and Peter Grunberg of Germany.

And we're going to find out them from NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris is on our studio.

Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, how do they get all that information in the little hard drive?

HARRIS: Well, actually, it all goes back to a discovery by Lord Kelvin 150 years ago. The hard drive, of course, is technology. And we're talking about a prize in physics. So let's talk a little physics first.

INSKEEP: Okay.

HARRIS: And Lord Kelvin discovered that if you put certain kinds of metal wire into a magnetic field and then adjust the strength of the magnetic field, you actually can affect how easily the electric current will flow through that kind of wires. So that property of electrical flow is called resistance. So this phenomenon is called magnetoresistance, okay?

Now, fast forward to the year 1988, Albert Fert was experimenting with this in his laboratory at the University of Paris, South and - or, say, France. And he discovered some new materials that were extremely sensitive to magnetoresistance. And the same time by total coincidence, Peter Grunberg, at Yulik Research Center in Germany, was also studying materials - different materials but kind of similar - and he also discovered that they had very magnetoresistance properties. So, this - they coined a new term for this kind of magnetic resistance and they call it giant magnetoresistance.

INSKEEP: Okay. Lord Kelvin, I assume, didn't know about the computer hard drive. These two guys may be did. The resistance that you're talking about, how does that translate into information saved on a hard drive?

HARRIS: Well, it turns out that the way the hard drive works has everything to do with magnetic resistance. What you do is - with a hard drive - you store the information on the hard drive in very small bits of magnetic material. And they're just oriented just so in order to store the information.

Now, the question is, how do you read it off again? And the answer is, you read it off by using a magnet, a magnetic field that helps you figure out the orientation of all these magnets. Now, with the super sensitive kind of magnetoresistance these guys discovered, it turns out you can pack those little magnetic bits even closer together - closer and closer and closer together so that, you can actually pack a whole ton of stuff on your hard dive. You've got your music collection these days, your photographs, you've got everything. And it is because you pack those things together. And then not only can you pack up together, but you can read them after the fact. And that's the part that these guys did. They figured out the physics that lets you read those really super closely packed magnetic particles.

INSKEEP: Did Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg realize that they were going to make it possible for me to save thousands and thousands of e-mails and spam and useless junk like that, that I've be better off throwing away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Well, I think it was readily apparent that this was really going to be useful for all sorts of things, particularly in the world of computers. So, I think that this was not something that took a while for people to figure out and how can we use this? I knew right a way this is going to really work. And I've actually, these days, there are thousands and thousands of people working on this very physics phenomenon because it is so useful.

INSKEEP: And what does it take our guy, I guess, 19 years for someone to be recognized for something like this?

HARRIS: Well, there is a huge number of people who are - who deserve Nobel prizes really, when you think about it, and at least a substantial number. You've got two or three a year maybe. So it takes a while for these guys to bubble up to the top. They want to make sure they get them before they perish because you're not allowed to award a Nobel after someone dies…

INSKEEP: Can I just mention this as we wrap this up? That there is a "Simpson's" episode where Homer Simpson gets a phone call, and the person says, Homer Simpson you've won the Nobel prize. And he responds: finally!

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: If I can just leave you with that.

HARRIS: That's a good thought.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Richard Harris on the winners of this year's Nobel Prize in physics.

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Nobel Awarded for Nanotechnology Innovation

France's Albert Fert and German Peter Gruenberg will share the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics for a discovery that has allowed a radical reduction in the size and increase in the capacity of computer hard drives.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation on Tuesday the technology was "one of the first real applications of the promising field of nanotechnology," which deals with extremely small devices.

"Applications of this phenomenon have revolutionized techniques for retrieving data from hard disks," the prize citation said. "The discovery also plays a major role in various magnetic sensors as well as for the development of a new generation of electronics."

In 1988 Fert and Gruenberg each independently discovered a physical effect called giant magnetoresistance in which very weak changes in magnetism generate larger changes in electrical resistance. This is how information stored magnetically on a hard disk can be converted to electrical signals that the computer reads.

"The development of computers showed in the last years that this was an important contribution," Gruenberg told Sweden's TV4 channel shortly after being told he was sharing the prize with Fert.

Last year, Americans John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won for their work examining the infancy of the universe, studies that have aided the understanding of galaxies and stars and increasing support for the Big Bang theory of the beginning of the universe.

On Monday, two American scientists, Mario R. Capecchi and Oliver Smithies, and Briton Sir Martin J. Evans, won the 2007 Nobel Prize in medicine for groundbreaking discoveries that led to a powerful technique for manipulating mouse genes.

Prizes for chemistry, literature, peace and economics will be announced through Oct. 15.

The peace award is announced in Oslo, while the other prizes are announced in Stockholm. The prizes, each of which carries a cash prize of $1.5 million, were established in the will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel.

The Nobel prizes are always presented to the winners on the Dec. 10 anniversary of the death of its creator.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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