It is the time again. Like every year in early fall the winners of the Nobel Prizes were announced this week. The physics,chemistry, and medicine communities look out to Stockholm. Who will be awarded the prize this year thus lining up with the great figures in the history of science (the same applies to politicians and writers for the peace and literature awards, respectively, as well as for the economists, for which Nobel himself did not sponsor a price, though)?Some scientists possibly spend a sleepless night in anticipation of the awaited call from Stockholm, which is not less than the highlight of an often already great scientific career. So a touch of Oscar night is in the air. And like in the case of the movie stars the announcement is followed by the discussions, who earned the award or who possibly should have earned it instead.
In physics there is no question whether this year’s awardees deserve the honor. The development of light-emitting diodes (short LEDs) that provide blue light is just such an achievement that Alfred Nobel envisioned, when he created the prize that bears his name. For, in combination with its red and green counterparts already in use, the discovery of the Japanese trio Isamu Akasaki Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura enabled the development of LED based white light. This has given path to a true revolution in the lighting technology in the past 20 years. This is because LED light sources provide extremely high energy efficiency while containing no toxic substances like other energy-saving lamps. They thus contribute directly to energy saving. Not very often has research been awarded the Nobel Prize, which has had such a direct beneficial impact on our everyday life.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics thus serves as a good reminder what enormous impact the scientific technological progress generally has on our all’s lives. Today we know the word „LED“ almost as well as the good old (and probably soon discarded) light bulb. Who would have guessed that the underlying technology is not yet 20 years old? It is rather useful that once in a while we are being made aware of the breathtakingly high speed of the scientific progress. For between our modern life and the scientific and technological progress taking place directly in front of our eyes, there are far more exciting connections than the everyday news with their economic crises, political meetings or various sporting events suggest. Upon closer inspection, we are even able to detect a troubling dichotomy: Despite the strong formative power of the scientific-technological development the awareness of it across society’s decision-makers and intellectuals is amazingly, not to say frighteningly, now. How little our opinion leaders are informed about the historical developments of the sciences and technologies based upon them, their rise since the 17th century, which provided the entire basis for the historically unprecedented prosperity we now take so much for granted in all those societies that adopted their method of assessing our natural world. How nice that at least the Nobel Prize reminds us of that. Just as the annual Hollywood spectacle in March serves also those of us who are not informed about the latest movies release schedule to make an informed decision about what movie we want to watch on our next Sunday evening outing. We should note however that the developments in the various scientific fields are often characterized by a dramatic plot that easily matches many thrillers.