Hard drive boffins, we salute you! (and Bobsaidwhat?)

It's Wednesday's IT Blogwatch: in which the Nobel Prize people recognize the scientists that helped make tiny hard disks storing loads of... stuff (yes, that is a technical term). Not to mention incomprehensible Dylan interviews...

Niklas Pollard eschews umlauts:

France's Albert Fert and Germany's Peter Gruenberg won the 2007 Nobel Prize for physics on Tuesday for discoveries allowing the miniaturization of hard disks in electronic devices from laptops to iPods. The 10 million Swedish crown ($1.54 million) prize, awarded by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, recognized the discovery by Fert, 69, and Gruenberg, 68, of giant magnetoresistance, which has helped revolutionize computer data storage and retrieval.


The two scientists' work made it possible to produce technology capable of converting tiny magnetic changes into differences in electrical resistance. Harnessing these tiny magnetic changes -- dubbed spintronics -- made it possible to pack much more data onto hard disks ... Fert and Gruenberg made their discovery independently of each other ... As Nobel physics laureates, Fert and Gruenberg join the ranks of some of the greatest names in science, such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Niels Bohr and Wilhelm Rontgen, who won the first prize in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays.

This was the second of this year's crop of Nobel prizes, which are handed out annually for achievements in science, literature, economics and peace. The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday announced this year's medicine laureates to kick off a week during which the winners in all five categories outlined in the will of dynamite millionaire Alfred Nobel are presented. [more]

Matt Ford drives the point home: [You're fired -Ed.]

Albert Fert of the Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, and Peter Grünberg of the Forschungszentrum in Jülich, Germany ... published their results in 1988 and 1989, respectively ... Magnetoresistance is nothing new in science—it is the change in electrical resistance of a material when it is in the presence of an external magnetic field. It was measured 150 years ago by W. Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who found that the resistance of iron and nickel would change depending upon the orientation of the magnetic field relative to the material.


The major breakthroughs came when the two groups started experimenting with magnetic multilayers, stacks of alternating ferromagnetic and non-magnetic metals where each layer is only a few nanometers thick. The first materials used by Furt and Grünberg's groups had stacks of iron and chromium. Testing carried out on these early magnetic mutilayers showed a decrease in resistance of up to 50 percent—far greater than any seen previously. This radical increase appeared to be an entirely new phenomenon, which was named GMR.

GMR relies on a combination of magnetism and electron spin to cause changes in conductance in the stacks of magnetic layers used by the researchers. When adjacent layers have the same magnetic orientation, electrons of a single spin type can move easily between them.  When the magnetic fields in neighboring layers are opposed, electrons of both spin types are scattered, causing high electrical resistance.. [more]

Darren Murph adds:

Although you've probably never glanced at your HDD-based music player and whispered a silent "thank you" to ... Fert and ... Grünberg, they're being rewarded handsomely for their discovery of a phenomenon used in every single one. In the effect, which is dubbed giant magnetoresistance, "very weak changes in magnetism generate larger changes in electrical resistance," which in turn allows data stored on hard drives to be "converted to electrical signals." The duo has been largely credited with enabling the portable HDD player market to explode, and they will reportedly split the respectable $1.5 million purse that comes with winning the Nobel Prize in physics. [more]

Mark Wilson puts it differently:

It's too bad these scientists had to wait for the iPod to become popular for recognition, when we'd already been exploiting their advancements in the areas of computers and computers that store porn for so long now. Congrats you two. [more]

Amazon.com CTO Werner Vogels updates his wishlist:

Their work had a tremendous impact on the computer industry as it revolutionized the way we could store and retrieve information on hard disks ... without GMR we would not have today's microdrives ... It was the first major application of nanotechnology and allowed hard disks to shrink ... to the device that fits in an mp3 player.

There are two fascinating compilations on the Nobel Prize website that accompany the prize: a high level article titled “Information for the public” and a more detailed “Scientific Background on The Discovery of Giant Magnetoresistance”. Both are highly recommended readings. [more]

Prof. Dario Moreno applauds the choice:

Just compare the achievements of those two geniuses with the recent discussion about the crackpots speculating about the metrics of the universe ... string theory and cosmology.

Here we have a real, old-fashioned Nobel Prize : a simple and brilliant idea, an experimental demonstration, and practical applications, like in the 1900s were you had to demonstrate the effect in front of the Academy of Sciences in order to get the prize or even to get your paper published.


As a professor of physics I was on the commitee of a conference aimed at high school teachers about modern days physics. I suggested the teachers in charge invited Fert but they answered that they do not understand a single thing about spin and ironically enough they wanted conferences about string theory and particle physics instead: there is definitely something wrong with public outreach of science, astrophysicists and particle physicists having built PR machines on the scale of their accelerators, observatories and budgets, and grabbing a huge part of the grants, when, with the same budget than the CERN spent on condensed matter physics or (relatively) small budget experiments maybe we would have a thousand of discoveries like the one of Fert ... Admittedly the Web came out of CERN but still. [more]

But Aunty Beeb gets the prize for the best rent-a-quote:

Professor Ben Murdin of the University of Surrey, UK, said ... "A computer hard-disk reader that uses a GMR sensor is equivalent to a jet flying at a speed of [20,000 mph], at a height of just [3 ft] above the ground, and yet being able to see and catalogue every single blade of grass it passes over." [more]

Buffer overflow:

Around the Net Around Computerworld Previously in IT Blogwatch

And finally... The Ten Most Incomprehensible Bob Dylan Interviews of All Time

Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/adviser/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and spam. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. You too can pretend to be Richi's friend on Facebook, or just use boring old email: blogwatch@richi.co.uk.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon