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2 Europeans share Nobel in physics for work in magnetism

Times Staff Writer

The 2007 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded Tuesday to two European scientists who discovered a tiny magnetic effect that has revolutionized the storage of computerized information.

France’s Albert Fert and Peter Gruenberg of Germany independently discovered giant magnetoresistance, known as GMR, in 1988. The manipulation of weakly magnetized films of atoms allows iPods, computers and other digital devices to store vast amounts of information on ever-smaller hard disks.

“I can hardly think of an application that has a bigger bang than the magnetic hard drive industry,” said Phil Schewe, a spokesman for the American Institute of Physics. “Every one of us probably owns three or four or five devices, probably more, that depend on billions of bits of information stored on something the size of a dime.”

Fert, 69, is the scientific director of the Mixed Unit for Physics at CNRS/Thales in Orsay, France. He told television reporters outside his Paris office that the basic research “is rooted in work that I started a very long time ago, but the discovery of GMR has had results that have gone way beyond what I expected.”

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A sailboarder and a former rugby player, Fert said he was looking forward to escaping the attention and having a quiet celebration with family and friends.

“Champagne is already on the table,” he said.

Gruenberg, 68, a professor at the Institute of Solid State Research in Juelich, Germany, said he received the call from Stockholm early Tuesday. “I was overwhelmed,” he said.

“This is the peak of all prizes.”

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Fert and Gruenberg will share the $1.5 million prize money.

The award Tuesday broke a seven-year streak in which at least one physics winner was American or affiliated with a U.S. institution.

Giant magnetoresistance is a process by which a tiny magnetic field can trigger unexpectedly large changes in electrical resistance. These changes can then be read as stored information, which is the heart of modern computer hard disk technology.

Fert and Gruenberg pioneered the process of stacking alternating thin layers of magnetic and nonmagnetic atoms to produce the GMR effect.

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The first disk-reading device based on the effect was launched in 1997, “and this soon became the standard technology,” the Nobel committee said.

Schewe said the prize honored “a terrific combination of great physics and huge practical application.”

“I was delighted to see this,” said Harvard physicist Venkatesh Narayanamurti. “This was clearly one of the most important discoveries of the last 10 to 20 years.”

Besides charge, another characteristic of electrons is an orientation in space known as spin. The GMR discoveries are pioneering advances in the budding field of “spintronics,” which could lead to another breakthrough in storage technology, Narayanamurti said.

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He said the award to the Europeans “tells us science is worldwide and Europe is having a resurgence, as is Asia; we need to keep our guard up.”

“We’ve got to give the Europeans a break once in a while,” joked Stuart Solin, a physics professor and director of the Center for Materials Innovation at Washington University in St. Louis.

Fert said he hadn’t expected his discovery to have such wide applications.

“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.”

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Fert told France-Inter radio that he planned to share his winnings with colleagues.

“As usual when I get prizes, I share a little with my associates, and then I will see,” he said. “I don’t know. I think I need new sails for my windsurfers.”

Gruenberg told reporters gathered at his institute that he was not too surprised to get the Nobel. “Because I have received a lot of awards, I was often asked: ‘When will the big award come?’ ”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist, called the honor a “great award again for a German scientist.”

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john.johnson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Geraldine Baum in Paris contributed to this report.


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