Published 22 May 2020 by Benjamin Skuse

Nobel Contributions to Digitalisation

Physical distancing but digital networking. Credit: Milen/iStock 

We only need look back 100 years to realize how lucky we are to be alive in the digital age. During the 1918/19 Spanish flu pandemic, quarantine meant pure isolation. Locked in a room, the only entertainment came from whatever happened to be inside those four walls or what could be seen from the window. Even for the majority of the public on less restrictive lockdown, the only communication with the outside world was through occasional door-to-door visits from postal workers, scouts and teachers.

Though we face many of the same deprivations as our forebears in the current Covid-19 pandemic, digital technology has helped keep a (usually pocket-sized) window open to the outside world. As we ride out the storm, it has distracted, entertained, informed and educated us, and allowed us to maintain important relationships and even continue working from home.

Providing a semblance of normality in extraordinary times, this technology has its roots in the scientific discoveries made by Nobel Laureates over the past 100 years. To list all of these breakthroughs would be a fool’s errand. So we will skip the many Nobel Prize-awarded pioneers of quantum mechanics and relativity, from Max Planck to Albert Einstein, who built the fundamental foundations on which all modern technology relies, and pick up the story midway through the 20th Century.

The Rise of the Information Age

John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain’s 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect”. Transistors ran cooler, demanded far less power and took up considerably less space than the vacuum tubes they would go on to replace, underpinning rapid technological advancements in digital computing.

For this reason, it is often said that the transistor heralded the ‘Information Age’. But it was Jack Kilby, Nobel Laureate in Physics of the year 2000 whose “part in the invention of the integrated circuit” led to the microchips found in every digital device we use today. In 1958, ten years after the invention of the transistor, Kilby pipped Robert Noyce to patenting the first integrated circuit, where all of the elements of an electronic circuit are integrated onto a single slice of the same basic material. To this day, the integrated circuit is the backbone of the information technology industry.

From Bar-code Readers to the World Wide Web

Alongside Kilby, Zhores Alferov and Herbert Kroemer were awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics “for developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed- and opto-electronics”. Kroemer developed the theory behind a new and improved transistor called a heterotransistor in 1957, which went on to revolutionise satellite communications and mobile telephones. And later, Kroemer and Alferov independently came up with the idea of combining semiconductor heterostructures with another discovery whose fundamental work by Charles Townes, Nicolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov was honoured by the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics – the laser.

Kroemer and Alferov’s heterostructure laser has been key in the development of many modern technologies, including CD players, supermarket bar-code readers and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). But arguably most important has been its role in fibre optics. This is because combining the heterostructure laser with the concept for information transmission via optical fibres, as proposed by Charles Kao who received 2009 the Nobel Prize in Physics, led to our global fibre optic communication network. This revolutionary innovation enabled the world wide web, allowing text, music, images and video to be transferred around the globe in a split second.

Network cable and optic fibre cable connection, Credit: Thomas-Soellner/iStock

Smartphone Science

The devices on which we often consume this media are smartphones, laptops and tablets. And there are a number of Nobel Prize-awarded physicists and chemists we have to thank for these modern marvels.

For example, touchscreens are made possible by the conductive polymers developed by Nobel Laureates Alan Heeger, Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa (2000 in Chemistry). The tiny hard drives storing our apps and photos can be read thanks to the giant magnetoresistance effect discovered by 2007 Nobel Laureate in Physics Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg. And the digital cameras taking our photos and recording our memes and vlogs have their roots in the work of Willard Boyle and George Smith, who invented the first successful digital imaging technology – the charge-coupled device, or CCD.

The most recent Nobel recipients to have contributed to digital technology are the 2014 Physics winners and 2019 Chemistry winners. 2014 Nobel Laureate in Physics Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura received the 2014 Nobel Laureate in Physics for solving a challenge that had stumped the scientific community for three decades – how to produce blue LEDs. By doing so, they could combine blue with red and green LEDs to make white light, and thereby produce the energy-efficient bright LEDs that not only light our smartphone screens, but also our cars and homes. 

John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino meanwhile laid the groundwork for the battery that allows us to talk to loved ones on the other side of the world for hours on end without needing to plug into mains electricity. That is because they invented the lightweight, rechargeable and powerful lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery, for which they won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Not only in smartphones and laptops, Li-ion batteries are today powering electric vehicles and storing energy from solar and wind power.

The diversity of these discoveries by Nobel Laureates that have contributed to our current digital technology is testament to the fact that it is hard to predict from where the next big technological leap will come. Perhaps, 20 years from now, we will be lauding how the work of Serge Haroche and David Wineland who received the Nobel Prize in Physics 2012 enabled the quantum computing revolution. But it is equally likely that we will be celebrating unexpected Nobel winners, the importance of whom’s contributions we have yet to fully appreciate.

Benjamin Skuse

Benjamin Skuse is a professional freelance writer of all things science. In a previous life, he was an academic, earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and MSc in Science Communication. Now based in the West Country, UK, he aims to craft understandable, absorbing and persuasive narratives for all audiences – no matter how complex the subject matter. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Physics World and many more.