Nobel Science Prizes in Industry:

The Promise and the Challenge of Science in the "Real World"


Karina Cummings




Past Nobel Prizes for discoveries in industrial research have stemmed from problems with large, visible payoffs that still have major gaps in the basic science. This type of scenario prompts private businesses and corporations to take an active interest in a project, and can lead to a person in the private sector winning the Prize if he or she makes that critical step or connection. Following this pattern, one can reasonably speculate as to what areas of science today are most likely to lead to a Nobel award for scientists in industry. There have been numerous Prizes in the past won by Bell Labs employees for inventions such as the transistor and for discoveries like measuring the background temperature of the universe. Other big players from industry include the IBM group for the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope and work on high temperature superconductivity, and Irving Langmuir at General Electric for work with adsorption, to name a few. These innovations reveal some very interesting common themes that span their diverse scientific fields. While exploring previous nobelists in industry, this paper will attempt to draw parallels between the achievements that led to the Prize in the past and the areas of science today in which similar situations make them look the most promising to lead to more Nobels for the private sector. The crux of all these scenarios lies in the promise and challenge that each one holds.

In examining the history of Nobel prizes awarded to scientists in the private sector, one sees that there is a basic pattern to their endeavors. In each case, in an area on the forefront of innovation and technology, the three necessary factors were industrial motivation, basic science, and, of course, stellar results. First of all, there must be serious, visible motivation from an economic standpoint to justify private funding. Companies that succeed have the vision to look ahead at tomorrow's possibilities instead of just the technology of the moment. They also need the intelligence to carry out their plans and adequate funding to allow them to embark on many endeavors, knowing that only a few will lead to any kind of real innovation. For example, Alan Heeger of DuPont's UNIAX Corporation won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on conductive polymers, which led to the world's first polymer-based plastic display. DuPont is famous for its research and innovation; though only one out of hundreds of innovations ever makes a significant impact on the world, that one success can pay for all the failures many times over. Heeger's display, for instance, is now used extensively to make lighter-weight cell phones ("Alan" 1).

The second criterion is that the innovation must not just synthesize a product from preexisting knowledge, but instead incorporate new, important advances in basic science that benefit more than just that one technology. To make the transistor, for instance, scientists had to learn a lot more about the physics of semiconductors and develop theories about how they could best be made with the p-n-p junctions. The scientists must contribute in an important way to our overall understanding of scientific principles in order to make their work worthy of consideration for the Nobel Prize. Though the prize may be specific, as in a drug like penicillin, along with that development came the concept of antibiotics as disease-fighting medicines and the methods used in penicillin development paved the way for many further discoveries.

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

One of the most well known commercial laboratories in the world of the Nobel Prize is Bell Labs, and more recently its innovation branch, Lucent Technologies. In 1998, Adjunct Physics Director Horst Stormer of Bell Labs Innovations (Lucent Technologies) shared the prize in physics for the fractional quantum Hall effect with two former Bell Labs scientists, bringing the total number of Nobel Prize winners doing their work at Bell Labs to eleven, for six separate prizes ("Bell Labs Awards" 1). Bell Labs has been on the forefront of applied science for more than half a century, with scientists winning prizes in 1937, 1956, 1977, 1978, 1997, and 1998. The photograph to the left shows Dr. John Bardeen, Dr. Walter Brattain, and Dr. William Shockley, who developed the first transistor at a Bell Lab in New Jersey in 1947 and won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics. Their work exemplifies the complex theoretical and applied science that can lie behind a profitable endeavor, making the project both appealing to the company and worthy  of a Nobel Prize.


            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.

            The key to the discovery that Penzias and Wilson made was that they worked for a company with long-term goals, one that realized the need for constant innovation. Some discoveries lead to direct profits, others do not, but overall the company comes out ahead. In the case of the seemingly useless discovery (in real-world terms) of a 2.7 Kelvin cosmic background radiation, it turns out that Bell Telephone was indeed very interested. Their interest stemmed from the fact that they were encountering an unexpected background of radio noise from all directions outside the galaxy when trying to study radio emissions from the Milky Way. Telephone communication, especially satellite signals, could be enhanced because the scientists could account for the previously inexplicable emissions ("Cosmology" 2). Related innovations would tremendously boost profits for the company, therefore making it worthwhile for a company like Bell Telephone to invest in a project that at first glance seems so removed from daily life.

Photo: Wilson and Penzias with their historic horned antenna at    

Crawford Hill, NJ  (photo: http://www.bell

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).

      Dr. Irving Langmuir, assistant director of the General Electric Research Laboratories, is an early example of Nobel science in industry. He won the Prize in chemistry in 1932 for his work in two-dimensional surface chemistry (called adsorption) by studying the gases and metal vapors found in miniscule amounts in the vacuums of electric light bulbs ("Langmuir" 1). The estimated savings of $365 million in household electric bills as of 1933 might be enough to convince the public of his contribution. However, Langmuir also greatly advanced more theoretical areas dealing with "the electrical properties of adsorbed films and [how] to measure exactly the forces that the atoms exert on one another" ("Langmuir" 6).

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 causes a cytotoxic T -cell response or mucosal immune response in an overwhelming majority of patients ("HIV Vaccine Development" 5). Scientists are trying to work on the problem from all different angles, from prevention and education techniques to isolation of certain parts of the virus and a deeper understanding of how it lives and multiplies. The virus is of the most complex type and constantly changes, making it difficult for researchers to unlock its secrets. They are looking for ways to destroy the virus that include disintegrating the outer coating, breaking down the virus from the inside or stopping it in some phase of its reproduction. In the process, they are learning enormous amounts about viral behavior, RNA, and DNA reproduction. This research is primarily a pathology and biochemistry problem, and whoever unlocks these mysteries in a way that leads to a cure would be a prime candidate for a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Johnston and Flores 504-510).  Above: Interaction of HIV envelope with CD4 and CCR5 cell receptors. (

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. Left, photo:

            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)

Above: Carbon allotropes diagram from Nobel Lecture by Dr. Richard Smalley .(

            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.

3) Semiconductors and Storage Devices: We are running up against the physical limitations of what we can do with current technology for making denser and denser integrated circuits. We are getting to the point at which a fundamental advancement in the technology or a completely different type of technology will be needed to take us to the next level of computing -- there are only so many transistors that we can fit on an integrated circuit. Some suggest that quantum physics may hold the key; for instance, scientists may be able to use the spin of the electron to signify the 0 and 1 of the binary computing system. Others look to more diverse ideas, including nano-electronics and biomolecular computing, which are related to the nanotechnology discussed above. Before the technological advancements can be made, there is still a lot of basic science that must be done to better understand and control subatomic particles. Since the problem lies in the realm of quantum physics, the innovator could potentially win a Nobel Prize in Physics.

 Some scientists today believe we are facing the limits of Moore's law, named for Gordon Moore, who made his famous observation just four years after the first planar integrated circuit was discovered. He predicted that the number of transistors per integrated circuit would double every 18 months and forecast that this trend would continue through 1975 (Moore 23). In actuality, it has held true even into the new century, because of companies like Intel, which he co-founded in 1968, and the ever-present IBM. Through Intel's technology, Moore's Law has been maintained for far longer, and still holds true as we enter the new century. One of the stated missions of Intel's technology development team is "to continue to break down barriers to Moore's Law" ("Silicon Showcase" 1). At the same time, IBM stepped ahead of the pack in 2000 with the V-Groove transistors, which can scale to channel lengths of 10 nanometers, or less than .01 microns (Spooner 1).


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 (


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.




In exploring the areas of nanotubes, an HIV vaccine, artificial intelligence and robotics, and the ever-shrinking integrated circuits, we see that basic science is by no means fully uncovered. There is still much to be discovered about the workings of the world before we can master the technology that we have and go further into new technologies. These topics are on the forefront of scientific news today, and all have great potential for research to be done in industry because of the visible benefits involved. While private research overall has decreased in the past few years, it has become more focused on the projects with most potential gain. A solution to the AIDS epidemic, a faster microcomputer, new nanotechnology, or a robotics innovation would all be very profitable to a company while providing an enormous benefit to mankind -- which Alfred Nobel himself considered to be the main criterion for the Prize.

(photo: /newspaper.html)

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