Monday, November 17, 2014

Red Vs. Blue: Politics of the Nobel Prize in Physics

This year's Nobel Prize in physics went to three Japanese scientist-engineers who developed the first practical high-efficiency blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs).  Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuki Nakamura received the award "for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources."  Shortly after the award was announced, former University of Illinois researcher Nick Holonyak made the news by complaining publicly that the Japanese work would not have been possible without the invention of the red LED, which he and coworkers at General Electric developed in 1962.  The Nobel committee has not chosen to honor Holonyak's work with the Prize, however, and he calls this neglect "insulting."  Beyond the immediate question of whether the Nobel Foundation should recognize red LEDs as well as blue ones is the wider issue of how important such prizes are to the field of engineering in general, and how fairly they are awarded.

Alfred Nobel himself was an engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur, not a scientist.  After a French newspaper prematurely ran an obituary on him when a reporter mistook his brother's death for his own, he learned that at least one prominent news outlet considered him a "merchant of death" because of his invention of dynamite, which was already being used as a military explosive in the 1880s.  Nobel never married, and in his will he directed that the bulk of his estate be used to establish an endowment to pay for a series of annual prizes for work that benefited humanity.  Thus the Nobel Prizes were born.

The Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded by a committee selected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which votes as a whole on finalists selected by the committee.  Over the years, the process has worked well for the most part.  The first winner, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, was recognized in 1901 for his revolutionary discovery of X-rays, and both the magnitude of the discovery and his clear priority in the field went unquestioned.  But over the years, the prize has gone to a few people who in retrospect might not have been the best choice available.  For example, is there anyone today who remembers Nils Gustaf Dalén, who won the physics prize in 1912 for his "invention of automatic valves designed to be used in combination with gas accumulators in lighthouses and buoys"?  Admittedly, lighthouses and buoys were technologically important in 1912, but at a time when Einstein's discoveries were being widely recognized, you wonder what the committee was thinking.  Then again, Dalén was Swedish, and maybe his home-team advantage had something to do with it.

Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that the twenty-words-or-less summary you read in the newspapers about any given invention is almost certainly not literally true.  For example, consider the question "Who invented the LED?"  Was it Henry Round, who when experimenting in 1907 with silicon-carbide cat-whisker radio-signal detectors at the behest of inventor (and 1909 Nobel Physics prizewinner) Guglielmo Marconi, discovered that under unpredictable conditions, the material emitted flashes of light?  Was it Russian scientist Oleg Losev, who published papers in English, French, and Russian in the 1920s describing not only experiments involving what we would now call LEDs, but a theory of why silicon carbide could emit light?  Was it James R. Biard and Gary Pittman, who, while working for Texas Instruments in 1962, patented a design for a gallium-arsenide diode that emitted infrared light?  In terms of technological significance to humanity, this discovery may outshine all the others, because the fiber-optic cables that make possible our wired world rely on infrared light emitted by direct descendants of Biard's infrared-emitting diode.  Or was it Nick Holonyak, who published the first report of a visible-light (red) LED that he developed at General Electric, also in 1962? 

And if we just stick to blue LEDs, which when combined with red and green allow the production of white light, there are others besides the 2014 Nobel prizewinners who should at least be considered.  In 1972, Stanford Ph. D. students Herb Maruska and Wally Rhines demonstrated a blue-violet LED made from magnesium-doped gallium nitride.  This was the first LED that made blue light, but it was very inefficient.  What Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura did was to develop ways of growing epitaxial crystal layers of high-quality gallium nitride combined with other materials in a way that greatly improves the device's efficiency.  By the early 1990s, they had carried their improvements far enough so that high-brightness LEDs could hit the commercial market.  Further developments with phosphors and other techniques have finally pushed LEDs to the point that they can compete economically with older forms of electric lighting. 

I think the lesson to learn here is that the awarding of every prize, including the Nobels, is a combination of good judgment (one hopes), timing, the composition of the committee deciding on the prize, and the flukes and random effects of history and chance events.  In other words, the Nobel Prize is what you would get if you mixed God's absolutely correct insight on exactly what went on, with a lottery.  And sometimes the lottery part plays more of a role than the perfect-judgment part. 

Nick Holonyak certainly has a case.  But so does Biard (who is still alive as of this writing), and so would Maruska, Rhines, and a host of others who made various contributions of lesser importance to the long saga of the LED, which began as a gleam on a silicon-carbide radio detector in 1907. 

Sources:  I referred to reports on the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics carried by the Independent (UK) at  The same paper reported on Nick Holonyak's comments at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on light-emitting diodes, its list of the Nobel laureates in physics, and its articles on Alfred Nobel and Oleg Losev. 

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