John Paczkowski

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1,000 Songs in Your Pocket Fert and Grünberg Changed Everything

appleinvite050907.jpgApple once said of its first iPod that “1,000 songs in your pocket changed everything.” And while that may be true, it wouldn’t have changed much without the pioneering work of Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg, who discovered GMR (giant magnetoresistance), a nanotechnology that makes it possible to read data that is densely packed onto the surface of a magnetic disk.

Today Fert of the Université Paris-Sud in France and Grünberg of Forschungszentrum in Jülich, Germany, were awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for their work that made “1,000 songs in your pocket” a reality.

“In 1988 the Frenchman Albert Fert and the German Peter Grünberg each independently discovered a totally new physical effect–giant magnetoresistance, or GMR,” the academy’s prize citation explains. “Very weak magnetic changes give rise to major differences in electrical resistance in a GMR system. A system of this kind is the perfect tool for reading data from hard disks when information registered magnetically has to be converted to electric current. Soon researchers and engineers began work to enable use of the effect in read-out heads. In 1997 the first read-out head based on the GMR effect was launched and this soon became the standard technology. Even the most recent read-out techniques of today are further developments of GMR.”

Amazing, yeah? Without Fert and Grünberg’s work, we’d be lucky to store a single song in our iPods.

“It’s no good having computer hard drives that can store gigabytes of information if we can’t access it,” Jim Al-Khalili, physics professor at the University of Surrey, told the Financial Times. “The technology that has appeared thanks to the discovery of GMR has allowed hard-disk sensors to read and write much more data, allowing for bigger memory, cheaper and more reliable computers. GMR is one of those wonderful phenomena from the weird world of quantum physics that has been put to use very quickly.”

Asked if he’d ever thought his discovery would have such an impact on consumer electronics, Fert told the Associated Press, “You can never predict in physics. … These days when I go to my grocer and see him type on a computer, I say “‘Wow, he’s using something I put together in my mind.’ It’s wonderful.”