Two scientists at UC Santa Barbara were among six worldwide awarded Nobel prizes in chemistry and physics Tuesday for work that ushered in today's Information Age.
Physics professor Alan Heeger won for devising the electrically conducting plastics that could revolutionize computing. And engineering professor Herbert Kroemer received his award for developing the laser technology used in CD players and other consumer goods.
The scientists--both sporting white beards and black-rimmed glasses--hugged as they celebrated their awards at a crowded university reception. They won separate awards for well-known work in two different fields, and neither was completely surprised by the award. But when Kroemer, 72, got the phone call at 2:30 a.m., he thought at first that his students were playing a trick on him. "It took me a few seconds to recognize what was going on," he said.
Heeger, 64, said he didn't receive the call until 6:15 a.m., when he and his wife hopped out of bed and started crying. "I don't even remember what was said," Heeger said. "But I knew it was the day. Everybody knows Oct. 10."
In previous years, Nobel prizes have rewarded more esoteric fields of study such as quantum mechanics and subatomic interactions. But this year's prizes recognize more practical applications of science and the role of discovery in creating the cheaper, faster and better computer technologies that fuel the information revolution.
"The Nobel Prize in physics for year 2000 recognizes information and communication technology as the major force in the transition from an industrial society to an information- and knowledge-based society," the Nobel committee said.
3 Scientists Share Physics Prize
The physics prize this year was awarded to three scientists for laying "a stable foundation for modern information technology." Half of the $915,000 prize went to Jack Kilby, 76, of Texas Instruments, for inventing the microchip--long described as the single most important invention of the Information Age.
The other half of the physics prize was shared by Russian Zhores I. Alfyorov and Kroemer for layered semiconductor and low-energy laser technology, now used widely in cell phones, satellites, fiber optics, CD players and grocery store bar code readers.
The $915,000 chemistry prize went to two Americans--Heeger and Alan G. MacDiarmid, 73, of the University of Pennsylvania--and Japanese scientist Hideki Shirakawa, 64, for the discovery that plastic can be made electrically conductive. Their work started an entirely new field of chemistry that may one day be used to produce flat-screen televisions, thin plastic computer screens that can be rolled up, illuminated wallpaper and molecular computers smaller than watches.
"The physics prizes are about the electronics of today and the chemistry prizes are about the electronics of the future," said Per Ahlberg, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the group that awards the prizes.
It was 1958 when a 34-year-old Kilby at Texas Instruments started tinkering with computer circuits. By today's standards, his first computer chip was crude: a few transistors stuck to the same piece of semiconductor crystal with no connecting wires. But the device sparked the information revolution by vastly decreasing the cost of computer components while increasing their power.
"It's been the route to cheap electronics," said Gordon Moore, chairman emeritus of Intel. "Without this, computers would still be a big thing behind a corporate wall."
"It's the invention of the 20th century," added Marc Brodsky, a semiconductor physicist who directs the American Institute of Physics. "In all our lives, it's all around us, in everything we do."
The chip's co-inventor was Robert Noyce, a co-founder of both Intel and Silicon Valley, who used a different method to develop microchips. Noyce died in 1990; Nobel prizes are not given posthumously.
Despite being credited with more than 60 inventions, including the co-invention of the pocket calculator, Kilby was surprised by news of the prize early Tuesday morning.
"I'm still somewhat in a state of shock . . . but I'm tremendously pleased to have it," a bathrobe-clad Kilby told reporters on his Dallas doorstep after being awakened by reporters bearing the good news.
The other half of the award was shared by Kroemer and Alfyorov, 70, for developing new kinds of semiconductors, called heterostructures. Those are essentially sandwiches of thin semiconductor layers that can be tailored to produce unique electronic effects or emit light.
The extremely fast transistors are used in satellite dishes and the base stations for cellular phones. Laser diodes built with the same technology conduct the flow of information through the Internet's fiber-optic network. These ubiquitous lasers are also found in CD players, bar code readers and laser pointers.