Nobel Prize for Giants

The Nobel Prize for Physics was announced today! From the Nobel Prize site:

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2007 jointly to Albert Fert (Unité Mixte de Physique CNRS/THALES, Université Paris-Sud, Orsay, France) and Peter Grünberg (Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany) for the discovery of Giant Magnetoresistance.

“Giant Magnetoresistance” sounds like something from a pulp science fiction novel or Star Trek episode, right? That may well be, but it is worth noting that this effect is what is responsible for your ipod (or other device using those remarkably compact hard drives for storage – like your laptop) being so small! (It is called “giant” because it is a much more powerful version of the magnetoresistance that was already known about. Magnetoresistance is a material’s ability to change its electrical resistance in response to an applied magnetic field**.) There’s a nice conversation about it with Richard Harris on NPR this morning (click here to read transcripts and also link to audio), and here’s the excellent summary from the Noble Prize site itself:

This year’s physics prize is awarded for the technology that is used to read data on hard disks. It is thanks to this technology that it has been possible to miniaturize hard disks so radically in recent years. Sensitive read-out heads are needed to be able to read data from the compact hard disks used in laptops and some music players, for instance.

In 1988 the Frenchman Albert Fert and the German Peter Grünberg each independently discovered a totally new physical effect – Giant Magnetoresistance or GMR. Very weak magnetic changes give rise to major differences in electrical resistance in a GMR system. A system of this kind is the perfect tool for reading data from hard disks when information registered magnetically has to be converted to electric current. Soon researchers and engineers began work to enable use of the effect in read-out heads. In 1997 the first read-out head based on the GMR effect was launched and this soon became the standard technology. Even the most recent read-out techniques of today are further developments of GMR.

A hard disk stores information, such as music, in the form of microscopically small areas magnetized in different directions. The information is retrieved by a read-out head that scans the disk and registers the magnetic changes. The smaller and more compact the hard disk, the smaller and weaker the individual magnetic areas. More sensitive read-out heads are therefore required if information has to be packed more densely on a hard disk. A read-out head based on the GMR effect can convert very small magnetic changes into differences in electrical resistance and there-fore into changes in the current emitted by the read-out head. The current is the signal from the read-out head and its different strengths represent ones and zeros.

The GMR effect was discovered thanks to new techniques developed during the 1970s to produce very thin layers of different materials. If GMR is to work, structures consisting of layers that are only a few atoms thick have to be produced. For this reason GMR can also be considered one of the first real applications of the promising field of nanotechnology.

So while you use your ipod, laptop, etc., today… think about the physics, and the physicists who made it possible!


**It is nothing to do with either the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, or its leadership.

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5 Responses to Nobel Prize for Giants

  1. lt.milo says:

    Ahh, the joy of physics serving an immediate practical use.

  2. spyder says:

    ** It is all Quicksilver to me, but does the Nobel ‘avenge’ the desperate years in relative obscurity, and the reality that these two brilliant minds aren’t the ones holding those super lucrative patents????

  3. IMHO says:

    Wait a minute….you mean there are subdisciplines of physics other than High Energy?

  4. Clifford says:

    Yes…. get used to it. 😉


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