Monday, October 22, 2007

The price of freedom

It's not every day that you're somewhere technical and you come across something else: some humour, or knowledge, or wisdom, just something other than what you were expecting to find in that technical place. The effect is always surprising (pleasantly so) and refreshing (a welcome respite from the technical slog). Some of the finest exponents of this rare art are Andy Tanenbaum (for instance his book on Computer Networks manages to incorporate quite a bit of humour without sacrificing technical accuracy) and Donald Knuth (his technical prose is almost always exemplary in its erudition and elegance--most famously displayed in that cult computer science classic, The Art of Computer Programming, or TAOCP as it's known in the acronymophilic nerd community).

So you can imagine my shock, and delight, when I was in a technical place recently, a linuxy one as it happens, minding my own business, when all of a sudden I stumbled across wisdom:
The price of freedom is responsibility, but it's a bargain, because freedom is priceless. - Hugh Downs

Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel Sentiments

The beginning of October is undoubtedly an extremely anxious time of the year for certain eminent scientists, writers, peacemakers and economists. For it is in October of every year that the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace and Economics are announced.

The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Albert Fert of France and Peter Grünberg of Germany for their discovery, in the late 1980s, of Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR), a phenomenon that has been exploited in the technological development of compact high-capacity hard disk drives (such as are used in the iPod). This development work was done by Stuart Parkin and his colleagues at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. Fert, Grünberg and Parkin have shared two major prizes for their work on GMR: the 1994 APS (American Physical Society) New Materials prize and the 1997 EPS (European Physical Society) Europhysics prize. One or two commentators are of the view that Parkin should have shared in Tuesday's Nobel prize. Others disagree; one even states that "Nobels are not given out for engineering, they are restricted to basic science".

I would offer three pieces of evidence to rebut the last point:

(1) Alfred Nobel's will states that this particular prize shall be awarded to "the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics." Discovery or invention. Clearly technological applications of scientific discoveries, that is to say inventions, are included. The will also says that all the prizes shall be awarded "to those who...shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." Conferred the greatest benefit on mankind: that, it seems to me, emphasises the practical and the tangible. And nothing confers more practical and tangible benefits on mankind than engineering.

(2) The fact that Nobel Physics Prizes have been awarded for discoveries and their technological implementation in the past. For instance: Guglielmo Marconi and his co-laureate won in 1909 for "their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy"; the 1956 laureates (Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain) won "for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect"; and the 2000 laureates won "for basic work on information and communication technology", including Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments "for his part in the invention of the integrated circuit". Wireless communications, transistors and ICs: it doesn't get more applied than that.

(3) The life and work of Alfred Nobel himself. He was the foremost engineer and technologist of his age. His fortune, the very fortune that pays for the prizes given in his name today, was built on his invention of dynamite, an engineering application if ever there was one. It seems most unlikely that he would have wished his own profession (engineering) to be excluded from the prize.

I would also note what I call the complementarity of theory and practice and the virtuous circularity of discovery and application: namely, that scientific discoveries and engineering applications frequently feed into and off each other in a virtuous circle of discoveries leading to applications which open up further discoveries which in turn spur more applications; and so forth. In fact, in the case of GMR this has already happened: GMR has opened up new areas of research and development in spintronics and TMR (Tunneling Magnetoresistance).

My conclusion is that the technological application of GMR is eligible for this prize. (For the record, I should add that I am an engineer myself and therefore would say that, wouldn't I?)

No, a far thornier problem is what David Politzer (Physics, 2004) highlighted in his intriguing Nobel lecture: The Dilemma of Attribution. Politzer and his co-laureates were awarded the prize for "for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction", a ground-breaking discovery in theoretical physics. In their Nobel lectures, Politzer's co-laureates spoke about their scientific discovery. This is standard practice--virtually all laureates discuss the work for which they have won the prize. Politzer deviated from this tradition and instead discussed the process of the discovery in terms of all the different people (and there were many) that were involved, directly or indirectly, advertently or inadvertently. Modern research and development involves the contribution of numerous individuals; co-workers, collaborators and competitors among them. It is almost always a collaborative enterprise. Politzer's point is that Nobel Prize winning work, which can be only be attributed to a maximum of three individuals by the Nobel committee, frequently involves the contributions of many more individuals than that. Isaac Newton's remark in a letter he wrote to Robert Hooke about having been able to see further because he was standing on the shoulders of giants, comes to mind.Let's face it: Newton wasn't a modest man by any stretch of anyone's imagination, yet even he, towering genius that he was, acknowledged his debt to other scientists. (Note: It's been suggested that Newton was being sarcastic. This sounds plausible given what we know about Newton's personality and that Hooke was small in stature. Then again, perhaps he was genuinely referring to earlier giants like Copernicus and Galileo. But never mind: we shan't let the facts get in the way of a good quotation.)

Take the key papers in which this year's winners published their discovery of GMR: Fert's November 1988 paper had eight co-authors; Grünberg's March 1989 paper had three co-authors. Earlier on, I noted that GMR's development as a viable technology was achieved by Parkin and his colleagues at IBM Research. Evidently none of these scientists made these achievements on their own.

Another consideration is that, very often, the crucial insight or step that makes a discovery possible may come from totally different quarters altogether. Indeed, it may be down to sheer luck. Or, as it tends to be called in scientific circles, serendipity. Sir Alexander Fleming spoke of this aspect of his discovery of penicillin when he received his Nobel Prize (Physiology/Medicine, 1945). In other words, the product of scientific discovery is clear and simple enough, but in many cases the process and people involved in that discovery may not be quite so clear and simple.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that no human panel of adjudicators can possibly have all the wisdom and omniscience required to appropriately evaluate and reward all the relevant contributors and contributions. As such, the Nobels are necessarily imperfect.

But my, what imperfection! The Nobels epitomise the best and boldest aspects of human endeavour and should be celebrated as such.

Congratulations Monsieur Fert and Herr Grünberg!