It’s interesting to see how various newspapers have reported the story of yesterday’s award of the physics Nobel prize to the discoverers of giant magnetoresistance (GMR). Most have picked up on the phrase used in the press release of the Nobel foundation, that this was “one of the first real applications of the promising field of nanotechnology”. Of course, this begs the question of what’s in all those things listed in the various databases of nanotechnology products, such as the famous sunscreens and stain-resistant fabrics.
References to iPods are compulsory, and this is entirely appropriate. It is quite clear that GMR is directly responsible for making possible the miniaturised hard disk drives on which entirely new product categories, such as hard disk MP3 players and digital video recorders, depend. The more informed papers (notably the Financial Times and the New York Times) have noticed that one name was missing from the award – Stuart Parkin – a physicist working for IBM in Almaden, in California, who was arguably the person who took the basic discovery of GMR and did the demanding science and technology needed to make a product out of it.
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry announced today also highlights the relationship between nanoscience and nanotechnology. It went to Gerhard Ertl, of the Fritz-Haber-Institut in Berlin, for his contributions to surface chemistry. In particular, using the powerful tools of nanoscale surface science, he was able to elucidate the fundamental mechanisms operating in catalysis. For example, he worked out the basic steps of the Haber-Bosch process. A large proportion of the world’s population quite literally depends for their lives on the Haber-Bosch process, which artificially fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere to make the fertilizer on which the high crop yields that feed the world depend.
The two prizes illustrate the complexity of the interaction between science and technology. In the case of GMR, the discovery was one that came out of fundamental solid state physics. This illustrates how what might seem to the scientists involved to be very far removed from applications can, if the effect turns out to be useful, be very quickly be exploited in products (though the science and technology needed to make this transition will itself often be highly demanding, and is perhaps not always appreciated enough). The surface science rewarded in the chemistry prize, by contrast, represents a case in which science is used, not to discover new effects or processes, but to understand better a process that is already technologically hugely important. This knowledge, in turn, can then underpin improvements to the process or the development of new, but analogous, processes.