Hard-disk breakthrough earns duo Nobel Physics Prize

Albert Fert of France and Peter Gruenberg of Germany on Tuesday won the Nobel Prize for Physics for work that led to the miniaturised hard disk, one of the breakthroughs of modern information technology.

Fert (69) and Gruenberg (68) were lauded for discovering a principle called giant magnetoresistance, or GMR.

GMR can “be considered one of the first real applications of the promising field of nanotechnology”, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation.

Working independently, Fert and Gruenberg discovered in 1988 that minute magnetic changes in a GMR system led to huge differences in electrical resistance.

These differences in turn cause changes in the current in the readout head, which scans a hard disk to spot the ones and zeroes in which the data is stored.

As a result, the readout head is able to read smaller and weaker magnetic areas — and this sensitivity means information can be packed more densely on the hard disk.

Matin Durrani, editor of Physics World, a journal published by Britain’s Institute of Physics, said the award was fitting.

“Most people draw up shortlists [of potential winners] for fun — of course we don’t know who will win — and they are two people we suspected might win it,” Durrani said.

“I am really pleased that it has gone for something very practically based and rooted in research relevant to industry. It shows that physics has a real relevance, not just to understanding natural phenomena but to real products in everyday life.”

Last year, the Physics Prize went to United States space scientists John Mather and George Smoot for a pioneering space mission that supports the “Big Bang” theory about the origins of the Universe.

The 2007 laureates receive a gold medal, a diploma and 10-million Swedish kronor ($1,53-million) to be split between them.

The formal prize ceremony will be held as tradition dictates on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize’s creator, Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite Alfred Nobel.

The prizes were first awarded in 1901.

On Monday, the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies of the United States and Martin Evans of Britain for their work in creating “knockout mice”, or genetically manipulated mice that replicate human disease.

The chemistry prize will be announced on Wednesday and the literature prize on Thursday. The prestigious peace prize will be announced on Friday and the economics prize on Monday. — AFP

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Pia Ohlin
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