Nobel Science Prizes in Industry:
The Promise and the Challenge of Science in the "Real World"
Above: A: The central colony of the fungus Penicillium notatum has created an inhibition zone for the bacterium Micrococcus luteus. B: Typical asexual sporing structures of a species of Penicillium.
The third criterion for a Nobel being awarded to people in industry is the most straightforward: results. In the course of the paper we will examine the successes of the past and speculate on recent developments in new areas of science most likely to lead to the next Nobel for those on the company's payroll rather than the government or university's.
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Previous Nobel Prizes
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† While some argue that private companies are so set on profit making that no pure science can be done, we find that history has proved otherwise. For example, why in the world would Bell Telephone care about the background temperature of the universe? In the 1960's, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered that there was a background radiation of 2.7-degree Kelvin throughout the universe, coinciding with theoretical work in favor of the Big Bang theory of the universe. The Bell Labs president said that Penzias "embodies the creativity and technical excellence that are the hallmarks of Bell Labs. . . . [He has] extended our fragile understanding of creation, and advanced the frontiers of science" ("Cosmology" 1). In 1978, they shared the Prize with another scientist in the area of low-temperature physics because of their work on cosmic microwave background radiation.
Photo: Wilson and Penzias with their historic horned antenna at¬†¬† ¬†
Crawford Hill, NJ ¬†(photo: http://www.bell -labs.com/project/feature/archives/cosmology/)
There are numerous other prizes that have been won by scientists in industry, and they all follow similar patterns. The scanning tunneling microscope (STM), for instance, allows scientists to see and move individual atoms. The STM was invented in the early 1980's by two Prize-winning scientists at IBM Research Division's Zurich Research Laboratory. Since that time, physicists have used the technology to make an atomic switch, the smallest electronic device ever (Alexander 20). Later on, other researchers at IBM's Almaden Research Center made the first-ever atomic cluster, building a 7-atom xenon chain one atom at a time (Cook 51). Even in 1992, one of the atomic switch makers, Donald Eigler, was not sure about "commercially practical atom switches or devices that use them" (Cook 52). The entrepreneurial attitude of the scientists is obvious, however, as he says that his hope is that "our fundamental research will lay the scientific foundation for future generations of very small electronic devices, including those that may someday be mass-produced" (Cook 52).
In the end, all these previous cases deal with a Nobel-caliber discovery or innovation made within the environment of a corporate laboratory. Each came about because there was sufficient industrial motivation for tackling the problem -- both in terms of the technological goals that provided the impetus for the basic and applied research, and in economic terms of the potential industrial payoff.
Photo: clip from "Langmuir," page 1.
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† The Possibilities of Today and Tomorrow
Keeping in mind the motivating factors, potential payoffs, goals and challenges that these past Nobel prize winners from the private sector have encountered, once can make some educated speculations about the areas of research today that are most likely to lead to a Nobel Prize for scientists in industry. AIDS research, carbon nanotubes, semiconductors and storage devices, and artificial intelligence along with robotics are the prime candidates for producing to Nobel Prize-worthy achievements.
1) AIDS Research: The search for the
development of a vaccine will require the unraveling of the fundamental
mechanisms by which the virus functions, so that the scientists can figure out
how to defeat the disease. Different approaches include searching for a broad
neutralizing antibody that fights against HIV primary isolates, a vaccine that
2) Fullerenes or Carbon Nanotubes: Carbon
nanotubes conduct electricity very well, and, when made into fibers of
molecular tubes, they are extremely strong. Late next year they will be used in
computer displays, and some scientists even speculate that they could be
"hung from outer space to earth" like cables to be used as a power
source. The chemistry problem behind fullerenes is how to make them on a large
scale. At this time, the basic science is not in place, and a solution to this
problem could lead to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† The Japanese science community has recently conducted research on a national scale in search of Nobel-worthy areas of tomorrow. They have recently focused on nanotubes as one important area, as seen in the following statement from the Japanese NSF headquarters in Tokyo:
Based on such trends in the way the Prize recipients are selected, the number of researchers who are concerned with the selection of the Prize would increase in the future in Japan, including Dr. Sumio Iijima of NEC who has discovered carbon nanotube and Dr. Shuji Nakamura of UC-Santa Barbara who has developed blue light emitting diode. (Shinbun 12.3)
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Partly in response to the Japanese effort over the last five years, the United States has been conducting its own research into the subject of nanotubes and nanotechnology, even holding conferences with titles like: "The State of Nano-Science and Its Prospects for the Next Decade" in 1999. Dr. Richard Smalley, the "Bucky Ball" inventor from Rice University, and Dr. Ralph Merkle of the private corporation Xerox were two of the main witnesses in favor of major federal funding for programs in nanotechnology. The subcommittee on Basic Research cited such applications as miniscule drug delivery systems, tiny medical probes, and transistors "that could improve the efficiency of computers by a factor of one million," as discussed in the next section ("Nanotechnology" 2). More specifically, carbon nanotubes are desirable because they can make machine parts stronger and more durable, improve efficiency of machines large and small. Scientists are also looking farther down the road at ultra-lightweight structures for spacecraft, biomolecular computing, and even biological self-assembly.
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† photo: http://www.intel.com/research/silicon/mooreslaw.htm
4) Artificial Intelligence and Robotics: While engineering itself does not win prizes because of the nature of its work, the background work that goes into engineering sometimes has. One example cited by my father was a professor on his thesis committee, Herbert Simon, who won a Nobel Prize for work on the ¬ďGeneral Problem Solver¬Ē -- a very early artificial intelligence program circa 1960. The Nobel committee seems to have had trouble in the past deciding where to award prizes that definitely seem warranted but do not fall neatly into any one of the three science categories. Ironically, Professor Simon (like others who did related work) was finally awarded the Prize in Economics, because of some applications in that area (Andresen 71).
Though artificial intelligence and robotics has not yet reached the level envisioned by Isaac Asimov, it is definitely the "science of tomorrow." It has at its basis areas of research ranging from basic physiology, neuroscience, vision research, and cognitive studies to the quantum physics and computing dilemmas mentioned above in #3. A Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Physics, or even in Economics are very likely to come out of discoveries made in these areas while working towards the goal of major advances in robotics and artificial intelligence research.
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Above: Example of The General Problem Solver (www.fpf.slu.cz/~cho20um/Dipl/GPS.pdf)
The "Nobel potential" of some other areas of science today is not as clear cut. One oft-mentioned area of research and innovation is genetics, and many assert that great advancements have been made. While people speculate about the amazing prospects of tomorrow, recent industrial developments have not incorporated any fundamental changes in the academic science of genetics, but rather have been well-managed applications of previously discovered processes. The Human Genome Project, for example, was a great feat of scientific organization and the result of the hard work of many, but from a scientific perspective was mostly a matter of using previously invented gene sequencing techniques. Pharmaceutical companies and other businesses in the private sector have been using this data and mining the gene sequences in search of the key for new drugs, but they are not looking at the data in a fundamentally new way such that the work would merit a Nobel Prize. If scientists at a company do win a Nobel Prize for coming up with a new "miracle drug" based on the genetic data, the prize would be for the miracle drug and its affect on humanity (much like penicillin) rather than for the actual genetics work.
Another area of research that will most likely stay basic and academic in the near future is high-energy physics. The equipment for "atom smashing" is so expensive that most of the research is government-funded at this time. Though quantum physics in general is hot topic in both the public and private sector, the high costs of research and lack of any visible commercial application will keep "atom smashing" and high-energy physics purely academic for the time being.
A more specific area that will probably not enter the realm of industrial research for a long while is MEMS research. Micro Electro Mechanical Systems are atomic-sized pumps, valves and switches that scientists speculate could some day even be used to create microscopic chemical plants; every molecule would be controlled, thus eliminating waste and pollution. For industry today, the economics of MEMS is questionable because today's systems are already very efficient. Companies therefore lack the practical and economic motivation to launch such costly, high-tech endeavors, because one of the criteria for industry entry into research is a visible payoff.
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Conclusion
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Bibliography
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Alexander, Michael. "Exploring Tinkertoy Technology." Computerworld 26 Aug. 1991: 20+.
Andresen, Scott L. "Herbert A. Simon: AI Pioneer." IEEE Intelligent Systems: computer.org/intelligent Jul.-Aug. 2001: 71-72.
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"Langmuir Measures Force of Single Atoms By Most Sensitive Method Yet Devised." New York Times 9 Jan. 1933: 1,6.
Moore, Gordon E. "Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits" Electronics Vol. 38, no. 8, 19 Apr. 1965: 23-26.
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¬†Shinbun, Nihon Keizai, trans. "Industry-related Research Results Prioritized" Monthly S&T Highlights from Japan. NSF Tokyo Office, 14 Oct. 2001.
¬†"Silicon Showcase: Moore's Law." Intel Research <<http://www.intel.com/research/silicon/mooreslaw.htm>> (20 April 2002).
¬†Smalley, Richard E. "Discovering the Fullerenes" Nobel Lecture 7 Dec. 1996. << http://cnst.rice.edu/nobel.html >> (20 Apr. 2002).
¬†Spooner, John. "IBM taking Moore's law by the Horns." ZDNet News 10 Aug. 2000.
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