LEDs Light Way to Nobel Prize

LEDs Light Way to Nobel Prize
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Few inventions are as emblematic of modernity as artificial illumination.  Even today access to artificial light epitomizes the separation of a billion poor from the rest of humanity. 

Thus it is fitting that the 2015 Draper Prize from the U.S. National Academy of Engineering -- for “significant improvement in the well-being and freedom of humanity” -- was awarded this week to five individuals for inventing the revolutionary light emitting diode (LED). 

For millennia, humans produced light at great economic and environmental cost by burning anything that was easily combustible, from plant matter to animal oils.   The world changed dramatically a century ago when engineers created artificial illumination using electricity to make metals and gases glow.  Now we have LEDs, which emit light from microscopically engineered structures that don’t exist in nature.  This is as momentous as going from whale oil to Edison bulbs.

From that point of view, it may be unsurprising that in December 2014 the Nobel Prize in Physics was also awarded for the LED: to three individuals, two of whom received the Draper Prize.

This convergence of honors is very telling about our times. The Nobel is primarily a science prize; the Draper an engineering prize.  The overlap not only in subject but also with the recipients says much about how intertwined science and technology have become.  The blurring of the two awards, and with many Nobels drifting into technology, suggests that it may be time for a 21st century successor to the Nobel to take up the mantle for pure scientific achievement.  The pursuit and recognition of pure science itself is not only fundamental to human history and society, but also a vital seed corn of progress.

What is the difference between science and engineering? Scientists wonder what the moon is made of; engineers figured out how to get there.  The very first Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 1901 to Wilhelm Röntgen for discovering X-rays -- not building an X-ray machine (which came later).  Similarly, Albert Einstein, a scientist, was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics for conceiving of the idea of the photo-electric effect, which underlies technologies from LEDs and solar cells to the lasers and detectors that make the Internet work.  Einstein himself neither built nor was involved in any of the resulting hardware or business.  By today’s criteria, Thomas Edison along with his collaborators and competitors (such as Britain’s Joseph Swan) could have received the 1921 Nobel in Physics – not Einstein.

The difference between science and engineering is not only one of purpose, but also of trajectory. You can draw a straight line from Edison’s team to General Electric.  But there is almost never a straight line from scientific principle to consumer product. Not that scientific principles are without practical implications.  But we see only in hindsight the branching maze of ideas, technologies, business, and social revolutions that subsequently emerge from them.   Think, for example, of Alan Turing’s brilliant work on mathematical computability which laid the groundwork for the digital revolution. It’s not that science is better or unrelated to engineering, or vice versa. Rather, they are intertwining and complementary pursuits along a continuum, though distinct at the extremes.

At its inception, the Nobel was intended to bring distinction and thus public and even political esteem to the often arcane pursuits of science.  There was good reason for this.  It’s far easier to understand the value of the LED or the incandescent bulb than electromagnetism or the genetic code.  The path from scientific idea, however noteworthy, to industrial or consumer product—from LEDs to gene therapy—is almost never obvious. 

Science uses technology and is often inspired by it.  (Carnot’s laws of thermodynamics came after and because of James Watt’s steam engines.)  Engineers use scientific principles and discoveries to build tools.  Many do both.  The relation between the two could be likened to that between a composer and a great orchestra.  Great talents are needed in both, and not only do both need each other, but neither exists without the other.   

Alfred Nobel, himself an engineer, understood well the distinction between science and engineering. Not only were those who received most of the Nobel science prizes throughout history scientists, the prize was deliberately restricted to a maximum of three individuals – a reasonable constraint for science, not engineering. The latter, unlike science, is for the most part a team (often a big team) sport.  Accordingly, the Draper accommodates up to five.

There are now plenty of prizes with a technology focus besides the Draper: the Millennium, Japan, and Queen Elizabeth to name a few.  This is less of a symptom of a tendency to reward ‘utility’ and more the result of catching up with the deepening role of technology in society

Today, as ever, the world needs new science and new answers to age-old and new questions.   We are far from any putative ‘end of science,’ though we may be witnessing an end of the pure science prize.

Over history, the Nobel has done much to foster public support, if not awe, for pure science.  But with the Draper-Nobel convergence, perhaps we are seeing a pivot in the history that calls for a new prize re-focused on the pure science end of the spectrum.  Some billionaire, or a collaboration of a few such, could endow a 21st century prize to recognize those whose scientific achievements bring the “greatest benefit of mankind” -- to use Alfred Nobel’s words.

But could a new science prize ever rise to status of the iconic Nobel? History suggests yes.

Though the Nobel evolved to become the world’s most recognized and prestigious by earning a reputation for identifying so many great thinkers and ideas, arguably its initially fame and status came from something far more basic: money.  The Nobel’s roughly $1 million award may not be unique today, but in 1901 it was without precedent. That monetary award was then equivalent to 20 years of one academic’s full salary.  Today, especially when shared, it amounts to barely a couple of years’ worth.

In Alfred Nobel’s day, chemistry (his field) was an exciting new discipline, which was changing the world with revolutionary products and businesses.  It was the information technology of its day, helping to create astounding wealth amongst a large and new wealthy class. Nobel’s own legacy came from his roughly $300 million (in today’s dollars) endowment, which has sustained five prizes for more than a century (the sixth, economics, was added in 1969).

Nobel’s purpose was to surprise the world, and to inspire future generations, by bestowing unprecedented honor and distinction on a few -- noble but ephemeral goals.  To surprise the world again, how about a neo-Nobel of five pure science prizes of $50 million apiece?  An endowment of a ‘mere’ $5 billion or so would do it; easy enough in today’s world. 

That would light up the world’s media.  And it would bring the kind of luster to the pure pursuits of science and ideas beyond even what Nobel once envisioned.

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