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Europeans Win Nobel Prize for Physics

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

If you check your e-mail this morning and then saved a bunch of junk on your hard drive, you can thank this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in physics.

The prize goes to two Europeans who discovered the physics that allows your computer's hard drive to pack so much information on them. The - prize was awarded today to Albert Fert of France and Peter Grunberg of Germany.

And we're going to find out them from NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris is on our studio.

Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, how do they get all that information in the little hard drive?

HARRIS: Well, actually, it all goes back to a discovery by Lord Kelvin 150 years ago. The hard drive, of course, is technology. And we're talking about a prize in physics. So let's talk a little physics first.

INSKEEP: Okay.

HARRIS: And Lord Kelvin discovered that if you put certain kinds of metal wire into a magnetic field and then adjust the strength of the magnetic field, you actually can affect how easily the electric current will flow through that kind of wires. So that property of electrical flow is called resistance. So this phenomenon is called magnetoresistance, okay?

Now, fast forward to the year 1988, Albert Fert was experimenting with this in his laboratory at the University of Paris, South and - or, say, France. And he discovered some new materials that were extremely sensitive to magnetoresistance. And the same time by total coincidence, Peter Grunberg, at Yulik Research Center in Germany, was also studying materials - different materials but kind of similar - and he also discovered that they had very magnetoresistance properties. So, this - they coined a new term for this kind of magnetic resistance and they call it giant magnetoresistance.

INSKEEP: Okay. Lord Kelvin, I assume, didn't know about the computer hard drive. These two guys may be did. The resistance that you're talking about, how does that translate into information saved on a hard drive?

HARRIS: Well, it turns out that the way the hard drive works has everything to do with magnetic resistance. What you do is - with a hard drive - you store the information on the hard drive in very small bits of magnetic material. And they're just oriented just so in order to store the information.

Now, the question is, how do you read it off again? And the answer is, you read it off by using a magnet, a magnetic field that helps you figure out the orientation of all these magnets. Now, with the super sensitive kind of magnetoresistance these guys discovered, it turns out you can pack those little magnetic bits even closer together - closer and closer and closer together so that, you can actually pack a whole ton of stuff on your hard dive. You've got your music collection these days, your photographs, you've got everything. And it is because you pack those things together. And then not only can you pack up together, but you can read them after the fact. And that's the part that these guys did. They figured out the physics that lets you read those really super closely packed magnetic particles.

INSKEEP: Did Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg realize that they were going to make it possible for me to save thousands and thousands of e-mails and spam and useless junk like that, that I've be better off throwing away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Well, I think it was readily apparent that this was really going to be useful for all sorts of things, particularly in the world of computers. So, I think that this was not something that took a while for people to figure out and how can we use this? I knew right a way this is going to really work. And I've actually, these days, there are thousands and thousands of people working on this very physics phenomenon because it is so useful.

INSKEEP: And what does it take our guy, I guess, 19 years for someone to be recognized for something like this?

HARRIS: Well, there is a huge number of people who are - who deserve Nobel prizes really, when you think about it, and at least a substantial number. You've got two or three a year maybe. So it takes a while for these guys to bubble up to the top. They want to make sure they get them before they perish because you're not allowed to award a Nobel after someone dies…

INSKEEP: Can I just mention this as we wrap this up? That there is a "Simpson's" episode where Homer Simpson gets a phone call, and the person says, Homer Simpson you've won the Nobel prize. And he responds: finally!

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: If I can just leave you with that.

HARRIS: That's a good thought.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Richard Harris on the winners of this year's Nobel Prize in physics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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