Tuesday, October 09, 2007

And the Nobel Prize in Physics goes to...

Wait, let me find it. It's somewhere on my computer. No, not on the desktop. Hmm, not under My Documents, either. I hope I didn't put it on my data disk; I've got 1000 Gigabytes of data there, and just about anything could be there.

Ah, here we go. This year's Nobel Prize in Physics went to Albert Fert of France and Peter Gruenberg of Germany, who discovered "giant magnetoresistance," or the ability of a tiny change in magnetic field to lead to a big change in electrical resistance in a substance. It may sound esoteric, but this is the effect that has allowed your computer hard drives to become big and cheap over the past ten years.

I am quite happy that the Nobel Prize went to celebrate this effect. Alfred Nobel set up his prizes in part to give an award to those whose science helps humanity. And while 30-gigabyte iPods may not be a huge boon to humanity, the availability of cheap data storage does help society -- by hooking such hard drives up to the internet, large quantities of data can be stored and shared. And if you are travelling on a different continent and need medical attention, the ability of a doctor to access your home medical records may be life-saving, yet your records wouldn't be available if data storage on computers weren't cheaper and more reliable than paper files. Advanced medical equipment like digital X-rays and 3-D MRI machines require huge amounts of data storage space, but lead to ever-improving diagnoses. Likewise, a scientist can travel through the jungle or desert, taking huge quantities of data on the current state of the environment for further analysis back home. Robotic spacecraft can now take millions more pictures than before because there is room to store the data. And on, and on, and on.

So, congratulations to Fert and Gruenberg! We've all benefited from their work.

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