The Nobel Prize for physics has been announced, and it has gone to three researchers of Japanese origin for their work on blue light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Blue LEDs were invented decades after red or green LEDs, which came out in the 1960s. Once blue LEDs were developed by Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura in the 1990s, a revolution in lighting and in personal electronics became possible, since the three kinds of LEDs could together produce any colour – and also white light. Those reading this newspaper on a smartphone should thank the three scientists; so should those who use small LED lights in their home.
It is not a coincidence that the impact of the work rewarded by this year’s physics Nobel is immediately understandable – not something that has always been the case. Explaining the Higgs boson – the insight underlying last year’s prize – is not easy. But LEDs are. And this reveals something perhaps about the underlying dynamics of basic research, and about the push-and-pull between the more applied and the purer forms of physics. This is a reward for deep insight into physics that was produced with a specific tangible problem in mind. More, it was a problem to which a price tag was attached – and so for the first time in a long while, a physics prize has been awarded for work conducted while at a private company – Dr Nakamura made his breakthrough while working for a small company called Nichia Chemicals. Indeed Dr Nakamura was given only a tiny bonus for his invention; he had to sue to get the money due him. Even Professor Akasaki – decades older than his co-laureates – conducted most of the work that led to the discovery of blue LEDs at Matsushita, before it became Panasonic.
This is a throwback to a different time, when the best brains in the world worked in what British Prime Minister Harold Wilson called the “white heat of the technological revolution”. In the 1950s, work was awarded – the transistor – that had been conducted at Bell Labs. And in the 1970s, work at Sony, General Electric and the British General Electric Company were rewarded. And then, nothing. In 2000, Herbert Kroemer’s work on semiconductors at RCA in 1957 was finally recognized; and so was Jack Kilby’s work at Texas Instruments on microprocessors. Private companies have a long history of supporting cutting-edge research, but one that has perhaps atrophied in recent years. This award will hopefully be a reminder that research does not have to happen only in universities. And although work done at companies has been awarded before, the 2014 prize is definitely a first in one way: Nichia, when Dr Nakamura did his work there, was not a giant company, but a small one, taking a risk on an untested technology. Perhaps that is where the future of physics lies.