The Nobel Prize in Physics has been announced. This year the winners are…drum roll, please…Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for their invention of blue LEDs – light emitting diodes.
Given that last year’s prize was won by the theoretical work done by Peter Higgs and François Englert on the Higgs boson particle, it is perhaps not unsurprising that this year the winners were more, shall we say…grounded?
To those of us not in the know, blue LEDs might sound like something you find in decorative holiday lights, but their practical implications are far more wide ranging. Without a blue LED, it was impossible to mix the existing red and green leds to create white light – the kind of light you need for your smartphone screen or the long-lasting, energy efficient lighting that will illuminate the future.
And those aren’t just buzz-words, LEDs are 18 times more energy efficient than a normal incandescent bulb and last 10 times longer. Not only is this better for the environment, but for the 1.5 billion people around the world who don’t have access to the electrical grid, LEDs can be powered by solar energy. Just think of the raves. Or, more seriously, emergency responders.
But, why are LED lights able to achieve such efficiencies? Incandescent bulbs heat up an internal filament, wasting energy by producing heat. LEDs work by converting electricity directly into light, without the need for heat. But without a blue LED, we’d be a little monochromatic.
And, WOW, were those blue LEDs elusive. Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura’s breakthrough was 30 years in the making.
But, we promised you an award ceremony, one to rival the academy awards, and we certainly have one. Admittedly, nobody gets music’ed off stage, and there wasn’t a musical number, but it’s a hell of a nice room and unlike the Academy Awards, the nominations for the Nobel Prize are a closely guarded secret, so there are no scripted reaction faces from the winners and losers. Instead, the winners are sometimes as elusive as their discoveries. Just ask Prof. Amano who was on a plane when they tried to call him. Just imagine walking off that jetway!
But by far, the best part is when they called Prof. Nakamura, at approximately 3 am his time, waking him up shock jock style to interrogate him about how he felt about winning the award he only found out he’d won when he received the call. (10 minute mark in the video)
So, today, when you take out your phone, take a second to think of this year’s Nobel Prize Winners in Physics and their contribution to society. And while you’re at it next time you use Google maps, give a thought to yesterday’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine: John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser who found our brain’s GPS. Because, if we can take a moment to think of George Clooney’s wedding, we sure as hell should also think about the men and women who are creating our future.