Nobels For IT And Plastics Pioneers

Joe Dresnok
Courtesy of Crossing The Line
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to a Japanese and two American researchers for their discovery that plastics can conduct electricity.

The physics prize was awarded to a Russian and two U.S.-based researchers for work that helped create modern information technology, leading to everyday devices like the pocket calculator and cellular phones.

Alan J. Heeger, 64, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Alan G. MacDiarmid, 73, of the University of Pennsylvania and Hideki Shirakawa 64, of the University of Tsukuba in Japan were cited for their revolutionary discovery that plastics can, with modifications, be made to conduct electricity as well as insulate.

"When it comes to light-emitting imaging diodes, there are no corresponding usages at all for metals. This (research) will open up entirely new areas that we've only seen the beginning of," said Per Ahlberg, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The physics prize was awarded earlier Tuesday to 70-year-old Zhores I. Alferov of the A.F. Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, 72-year-old Herbert Kroemer, a German-born researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara and 76-year-old Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments in Dallas.

They were cited for their work that helped create modern information technology, leading to everyday devices like pocket calculators, CD players and cell phones.

The chemistry award winners found "that a thin film of polyacetylene could be oxidized with iodine vapor, increasing its electrical conductivity a billion times," the citation said.
The joint work of the three researchers in Philadelphia led to the development of light-emitting diodes in plastics. The so-called "brilliant plastics" could eventually lead to the development of flat television screens and luminous traffic and information signs that don't need bulbs, the academy said.
The conductive polymers have already been used to reduce static electricity and interference on photographic film and computer screens.

"One reason for the great commercial potential of conductive and semiconductive polymers is that they can be produced quickly and cheaply," according to the citation.

Alferov and Kroemer will share half the physics prize for work in developing technology used in satellite communications and cell phones.

Kilby will get the other half for his part in the invention and development of the integrated circuits and as a co-inventor of the pocket calculator.

"The physics prizes are about the electronics of today and the chemistry prizes are about the electronics of the future," Ahlberg said.

Hermann Grimmeiss, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said the work of the three physics prize winners had been invaluable in the development of modern information technology.

"Without Kilby it would not have been possible to build the personl computers we have today, and without Alferov it would not be possible to transfer all the information from satellites down to the earth or to have so many telephone lines between cities," Grimmeiss said.

The academy in this year's selections cited scientists for their work in a practical realm instead of more esoteric branches of physics like subatomic particles and quantum physics that have been honored the previous two years.

Reached by phone at his institute in St. Petersburg, Alferov said, "My colleagues and I are now going to uncork a bottle of champagne and celebrate."

Asked whether he expected the honor, he said, "Not really, but maybe a very little bit."

The three winners were cited for work done independently.

A week of Nobel awards started Monday with the naming of Arvid Carlsson of Sweden, Paul Greengard and Eric Kandel of the United States, as the winners of this year's medicine prize for discoveries about how messages are transmitted between brain cells, leading to treatments of Parkinson's disease and depression.

The economics prize will be announced Wednesday and the literature prize on Thursday in Stockholm. The coveted peace prize will be awarded Friday in Oslo, Norway.

Alfred Nobel, the wealthy Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, endowed the physics, chemistry, literature, medicine and peace prizes in his will but left only vague guidelines for the selection committees. The economics prize was first awarded in 1969.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which also chooses the physics and economics winners, invited nominations from previous recipients and experts in the fields before whittling down its choices, but deliberations are conducted in strict privacy.

Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American, won last year's chemistry prize for pioneering the use of rapid-fire laser flashes that illuminate the motion of atoms in a molecule.

The prizes always are presented Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.