By CURT SUPLEE
The Washington Post
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry were awarded today to six scientists — four of them Americans — whose work helped make the modern "information age" possible.
The physics prize went to Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments for co-inventing the integrated circuit, or computer chip, and to Zhores Alferov of St. Petersburg, Russia, and Herbert Kroemer of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who together pioneered the use of novel designs to create today’s high-speed transistors and tiny lasers.
Thanks to that research, high-tech chips are able to process information as fast as 600 billion units per second, low-energy laser beams are used in scores of everyday applications, from supermarket check-out counters to portable CD players, and microelectronic devices are employed in a huge range of fields, from medicine to astronomy.
"The 1947 invention of the transistor (which won the 1956 Nobel Prize for Physics) by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley gave us what became the "nerve cell" ofthe information age," said Stanford University physicist Michael Riordan, co-author of Crystal Fire, a history of the transistor.
"But that was not enough. Alferov, Kroemer and Kilby figured out novel ways to make advanced transistors and semiconductor lasers-and how to assemble them into the miniature electronic nervous systems we recognize today as microchips," he said.
"This is a significant recognition by the Nobel committee that engineering contributions in one area can further scientific investigation for all," said one of Kilby’s former co-workers, Howard R. Ruff of Sematech, a semiconductor research consortium in Texas.
The chemistry prize was won by Alan Heeger of UCSB, Alan MacDiarmid of the University of Pennsylvania and Hideki Shirakawa of the University of Tsukuba, Japan, for "their discovery and development of conductive polymers" — plastics that carry electrical currents almost as easily as metals.
Those materials, familiar to the public in light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and anti-static devices such as computer-area carpeting, are expected to provide such future innovations as smart windows that block out sunlight and low-power video screens that could be as large as a wall and as thin as wallpaper.
"We’re very excited," said Daryle Busch, president of the American Chemical Society, "because this award is in the old tradition. That is, it was given for work that is probably going to have a very substantial impact on society, and from which people will perhaps benefit greatly over the long term."