Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The iPod gets the 2007 Nobel Prize...

... of Physics, that is. Sort of. It's actually those two super-brains from France and Germany (Albert Fert -no kiddin'- and Peter Grünberg) who got it for discovering independently of each other in 1988 a phenomenon known as Giant Magnetoresistance (term coined by Fert). Apparently, this ingenious pur-sang discovery helped enormously in achieving extreme miniaturization in magnetic storage devices (Gigabyte stuff) and made MP3 players like the iPod a done deal. Here's to you Albert and Peter! Thank you for the iPod come true.

This magnetoresistance thing, once discovered, is a real simple thing to explain. I gotta tell you though, it's after reading the's editor-in-chief description of the phenomenon that I got a clue of what they were talking about. Most other reporters were talking Starwars gibberish trying to explain the thing, really telling me that they had no clue what they were talking about.

So, let me explain in a made for dummies fashion.

It seems that if you stack (sandwich) ultra thin metal sheets (iron and chrome, for instance, at nanometer levels of thinness) one upon another, then, applying a weak magnetic field in a certain direction causes the outer electrons of the sandwiched metal atoms adopt opposite spin; this seems to increase dramatically the electrical resistance, which electrons of an applied electrical current encounter. On the contrary, application of an opposite direction magnetic field makes those same outer metal electrons adopt same spin and this apparently decreases the electrical resistance to applied electrical currents dramatically too... In other words, weak variable magnetic fields are transformed into strong variable electrical currents.

If I got it right, it seems that some metal atoms are electron spin insensitive to magnetic field variations (same spin either way) where other metals are sensitive (spin changes with magnetic field). Of course if you knew that, then the rest is chicken shit... about how to get thin enough sandwiched slices of alternatively behaving metals (chrome and iron) stack upon another to observe some useful electric current behavior: transform weak magnetic fields to strong currents. I guess that's what they both did, Bert and Pete, bless their hearts!

Sounds kinda like transistor physics too... but there, it's some weak electrical (base) current deltas that get transformed (amplified) into strong electrical current deltas... and that phenomenon alone makes your modern electrical appliances, TVs, Sound systems, and PCs come true. When I was a kid studying the work done by electrons in transistors, in order to memorize the logic of their function, I compared the few (weak) base electrons triggering the passage of strong currents, to the handful of soldiers hidden in the Trojan Horse, who opened the gates to the scores of Greeks, who then entered and took over Troy. Kinda cute, eh? Call it parallel thinking...

Simple comme bonjour. I wish I had discovered this Giant Mag* thing... would become 1.5M€ heavier... But I guess, my brain is a lot smaller than theirs. I'm still glad I can turn on my PC and recover from a blue screen of death, courtesy of Microsoft.

Anyways, I don't know whether it's Albert and Peter who got the prize or Steve Jobs... Imagine a world without iPods. Would these dudes be on the Alfred Nobel Prize Award Committee list? I mean, they discovered the darn thing 20 years ago, didn't they? Why did it take those Alzheimer suffering committee members that long to recognize the dudes' merits? Is it because the Swedes loved much the latest iTouch iPod? And as they couldn't afford to award the prize to His Jobness, they decided to honour the two magneto-nerds for their discovery. Cool!

It's about time they did more of that... they should also define a Nobel prize for the best, paradigm shift sort of thing, discovery on the Internet... like Tim Berners-Lee, or the dudes of TCP/IP (Kahn and ...forgot the other one), or the kids from Skype and Larry Page from Google. The thing is, most of these Info-Age kids, with some exceptions, are gazillion dollars rich, and they ain't need the 'dough', so the Committee could justify a smaller cut, like, say, a daphne crown as for winner athletes of the Ancient Olympic Games... innit?

No comments: