Scholars' Research Spawned PDAs: German, French Scientists Win Nobel Prize in Physics

If you're reading this article or own anything with a hard drive, chances are good that you owe a debt of gratitude to the two men -- France's Albert Fert and Germany's Peter Grünberg -- awarded this year's Nobel Prize in physics.

Physicist Peter Grünberg joined the ranks of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Niels Bohr Tuesday as a Nobel physics laureate.
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Physicist Peter Grünberg joined the ranks of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Niels Bohr Tuesday as a Nobel physics laureate.

German physicist Peter Grünberg and France's Albert Fert were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for their independent discovery of a method of storing and transporting information that has made many of today's household and portable electronic devices -- from iPods to PDAs -- smaller and faster.

In 1988 both men discovered the giant magnetoresistance phenomenon (GMR), which showed that weak magnetic fields force large changes in electrical resistance, allowing data stored magnetically to be converted into signals that computers can read. GMR brought about the field of spintronics, which holds that using the spin of an electron -- rather than its electrical charge -- in magnetic storage devices allows for much more information to be stored in a much smaller space -- hence small laptops, music players, multi-function cell phones and other small electronic devices.

Both realized the importance of their discoveries early on. But while both rushed to publish their findings, Grünberg -- wisely, it turned out -- took a break to file a patent application for the discovery. They will split the awards bounty of 10 million Swedish kronor (€1.1 million; $1.5 million).

"The MP3 and iPod industry would not have existed without this discovery," Borje Johansson, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize annually, told the Associated Press.

"Applications of this phenomenon have revolutionized techniques for retrieving data from hard disks," the academy's prize citation stated. "The discovery also plays a major role in various magnetic sensors as well as for the development of a new generation of electronics."

Grünberg, 68, was born in Pilsen, now in the Czech Republic. He taught at the Institute for Solid State Physics at the Jülich Research Centre, near Aachen, for 32 years until his 2004 retirement.

Fert, 69, is the scientific director of Paris-Sud University's Mixed Unit for Physics at CNRS/Thales in Orsay, France.

jtw/reuters/ap

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