Diodes and Transistors

Breakthroughs in microscope technology and energy-efficient lighting are amongst the scientific advances recognised by this year’s Nobel prizes. Here’s our breakdown of the 2014 winners in the sciences of physics, chemistry, medicine and economics.

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, for the invention of the blue light emitting diode (LED). LEDs are simple semiconductors that produce coloured light when electricity is passed through them. Red LEDs were developed in the early 1960s, and other colours, including green, orange and yellow, soon followed. However, blue LEDs proved more difficult to achieve – and without blue, scientists didn’t have all the colours needed to produce white light (i.e. the seemingly colourless light given off by the Sun and traditional incandescent light bulbs). Today, thanks to Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura’s work, LEDs can be used to light homes and businesses, using a fraction of the energy of other types of lighting.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistrywas awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner, for their contributions to the field of microscopy. For a long time, it was assumed that optical microscopes had an inherent limitation: that no matter how far the technology advanced, they would never be able to observe anything smaller than 0.2 micrometres (for comparison, the thickness of a human hair is around 45 micrometres). Working separately, Hell, Betzig and Moerner challenged this preconception by developing two methods for imaging things on a nanoscopic scale – thousands of times smaller than the supposed limit. These techniques have enabled researchers to see inside living cells, revealing new details about how the human body functions.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicinewas awarded to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser, for their roles in the discovery of the brain’s positioning system – the network of specialised brain cells used for spatial navigation. It’s hoped that further study of these cells will help us better understand how the brain maps its surroundings and forms memories.

The Nobel Prize in Economic Scienceswas awarded to Jean Tirole, credited as “one of the most influential economists of our time” and recognised for his research into the regulation of monopolies, mergers and other powerful market forces. His theories and analyses have informed policymakers around the world, and have been applied to industries ranging from banking to telecommunications.

In recognition of this year’s physics prizewinners, watch Diodes and Transistors to learn more about LEDs.