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Which Nobel-prize-winning physics invention has had the most profound impact on society?

By James Dacey

Lightbulb and fibre optics

Physics has brought transformative inventions. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Péter Mács)

Earlier this week my colleague reported the death of Heinrich Rohrer, the Swiss condensed-matter physicist who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics for the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) at IBM’s Zürich Research Laboratory. Rohrer shared one half of the prize with his IBM colleague Gerd Binnig, while the other half went to the West German Ernst Ruska for his invention of the electron microscope (EM).

By bringing into view the atomic world, EMs and STMs have undoubtedly had a huge impact on science. Before their invention, optical microscopy had been a truly transformative technology. But it had been fundamentally limited to seeing things that are (roughly speaking) larger than the wavelength of the light used to produce the image. And since the wavelength of visible light is some 10,000 times larger than the typical distance between two atoms, we could not see individual atoms.

The EM and the STM have enabled scientists to generate images of individual atoms and atomic-scale surfaces, and to study processes at the molecular scale. The invention of the STM was also the precursor to the invention of atomic force microscopy (AFM), which measures the force between the microscope tip and sample under study rather than the tunnelling current. AFM is used in a wide variety of fields including biological applications, where it is used to measure the mechanical properties of living material. These three types of microscope have enabled the rise of nanotechnology as a revolutionary field of science.

These physics inventions – and the nanotechnology they are enabling – are having a profound impact on many areas, including medicine, materials science and computer science. In this week’s Facebook poll, we would like you to give your opinion on the following question.

Which Nobel-prize-winning physics invention has had the most profound impact on society?

Charge-coupled device (2009 prize)
Transistor (1956 prize)
Scanning tunnelling microscope (1986 prize)
Laser (1964 prize)
Electron microscope (1986 prize)
Optical fibres (2009 prize)
Wireless telegraphy (1909 prize)
X-ray crystallography (1915 prize)

As always, please feel free to explain your choice by posting a comment on the Facebook poll or below this blog. And likewise, please suggest another physics invention to have won the Nobel prize if it is not on our list.

In last week’s poll, we entered the world of linguistics by asking about the way the language of physics is used around the world. We asked whether you pronounce physics terms as they sound in their language of origin, e.g. the Germanic “Ein-shtein” as opposed to the anglicized “Ein-stein”. Some 54% of people replied “yes”, while just 9% replied “no”. The remaining 37% opted for “It depends who I’m speaking to”.

We also had some interesting comments from our Facebook followers.

“I answered yes; but if there’s a good translation, I’d rather use it when speaking in English or Spanish. I guess there wouldn’t be so much problem with ‘bremsstrahlung’, but how many people would recognize ‘zutstandsumme’?”
Julio Herrera-Velázquez

“Basically, Japanese follows the original pronunciation. Particularly, I am disinclined to pronounce ‘Hermitian’ in English.”
Naoki Shimode

“This is a matter on how ridiculous you feel when you say the term. The less ridiculous you feel, the higher probability to employ the term in that language.”
Néstor F Benéitez Escudero

Thanks for all you participation and we hope to hear from you again in this week’s poll.

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  1. Sourav Mondal

    I think Einstein and his invention. Today laser physics,photoelectric effect(solar cell),relativity etc. are the best think.
    Another important think Quantum Computing, where we used laser physics.
    So,Quantum electronics today our best think.

  2. sriharika

    I think laser is the most profound impact on society

  3. Surajit Sen

    Discovery of X-ray (1901) may be included in this list. I wonder why Discovery of Internet is not getting the attention Nobel Committee…

  4. Atanu

    I think discovery of Cosmic Background Radiation had a huge impact on the mindset of all humanity, it changed the idea of how we perceive the universe. It shook the belief system and forced the humankind to rethink the creation-evolution puzzle. Well this didn’t have any use in material terms but it changed the way all humans think about and look at the universe… just like the discovery of the shape of our planet earth.

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