Given the Nobel Foundation’s statutes (three people at maximum, no posthumous awards), it’s almost inevitable that every year, there will be people who deserve a share of a Nobel Prize that are left out.
Nick Holonyak Jr., the person widely credited with the development of the first visible-light LED, the device that now lights up countless clocks, traffic signals, and other electronic displays, might be one of them. On Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics to three inventors of the blue light-emitting diode. Holonyak isn’t exactly complaining that he isn’t among them; his objection is that his 1962 invention has never been singled out for recognition by the academy.
“Hell, I'm an old guy now,” Holonyak said in an interview with the Associated Press. “But I find this one insulting.”
In announcing the prize yesterday, the Nobel Foundation highlighted the great potential social impact of blue LEDs, which made LED bulbs possible and could help dramatically reduce the amount of energy the world expends on lighting.
But some of Holonyak’s colleagues are puzzled at the selection. “I can’t help but wonder why the committee chose to single out the blue light LED in their selection of the winners,” Andreas Cangellaris, dean of engineering at the University of Illinois, Holonyak’s home for many decades, told a reporter at The News-Gazette, a local newspaper. “Very puzzling and very disappointing.”
The story of the LED, of course, goes back further than and well beyond Holoynak. Before Holonyak’s red LED, there was the infrared LED (along with even earlier discoveries), and there is a host of other researchers who could share credit in the device’s development.
Indeed, The News-Gazette went on to say that Holonyak “was disappointed and irritated at the omission—not just for himself, but for many of his former students and colleagues who did groundbreaking work themselves.”
Holonyak, who won the IEEE Medal of Honor in 2003, originally set out to develop a red diode laser. In the process, he also succeeded in creating a red LED. Holonyak and several of his colleagues later went on to use compound semiconductors similar to those used to create the first LED to develop a transistor laser, a device capable of emitting both electrical and optical signals.
You can read more about his seminal work in an IEEE Spectrum profile here. Holonyak also made a couple of nice appearances online on the 50th anniversary of his invention: an audio slide show for the BBC and an excellent video interview for General Electric, where the device was made.
Rachel Courtland, an unabashed astronomy aficionado, is a former senior associate editor at Spectrum. She now works in the editorial department at Nature. At Spectrum, she wrote about a variety of engineering efforts, including the quest for energy-producing fusion at the National Ignition Facility and the hunt for dark matter using an ultraquiet radio receiver. In 2014, she received a Neal Award for her feature on shrinking transistors and how the semiconductor industry talks about the challenge.