Forty years after the release of the first single-transistor DRAM device, IBM fellow Robert Heath Dennard has been honored with the Kyoto Prize in advanced technology for his breakthroughs in DRAM development and semiconductor scaling.
In 1967, Dennard was sitting in his living room after an all-day research symposium at IBM, mulling over the presentation he'd seen on magnetic-core memory. His own work at the time focused on six-transistor metal-oxide semiconductor (MOS) semiconductor memory, but in the spirit of Occam's Razor, he sought something as simple as the magnetic core design. That night, he was struck with inspiration for a version that used only a single transistor.
While Dennard found himself instantly exhilarated at the possibilities of the technology, his boss was a bit less entranced -- faced with a 10:00 p.m. call describing the technology of the future, the boss, as Dennard likes to recount, responded with the equivalent of, "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning."
Of course, Dennard's Kyoto Prize covers more than just his invention of DRAM. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was involved in seminal work on developing MOSFET scaling equations that characterize the way current, power, and power-delay product change as feature sizes shrink. His efforts led to the development of compact, economical, reliable memory, and ever more powerful processors.
Taken together, his contributions have had an enormous impact on virtually every sphere of human endeavor, including communications, healthcare, security and defense, transportation, entertainment, science, and manufacturing, not to mention the global economy.
Established in 1985 by Kazuo Inamori and the Inamori Foundation, the Kyoto Prize is awarded annually in the areas of advanced technology, basic sciences, arts, and philosophy. A Japan-based analog to the Nobel Prize program, it is in many ways becoming more relevant. I say that because in addition to basic science, it has a separate award focusing on key technological advances that can change our world.
The Nobel program awards prizes in physics, chemistry, and physiology/medicine -- not in engineering. In 2009, Willard Boyle and George Smith received Nobel prizes for their invention of the CCD, a technology that has enabled everything from cancer diagnostics to sending back pictures from the surface of Mars. Arguably, inventions like DRAM and flash memory have had even greater impact on our lives.
And yet, neither Dennard nor flash memory inventor Fujio Masuoka have received Nobel prizes. Now, you might say that it stands to reason since both are engineers by training and the Nobel Prize in physics is, after all, a prize awarded by physicists. Then again, Jack Kilby, a co-winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics for his development of the integrated circuit, was an engineer by training. So why haven't Dennard and Masuoka been recognized? Is it that the work is not theoretical enough?
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-physics. My undergraduate degree is in physics. (Some of my best friends are physicists...) I started out as an EE but switched over midway through my first year. The event that triggered my epiphany was studying resistors in parallel. The EE text expressed the equivalent resistance of two resistors in parallel as Rtot = R1R2/(R1+R2); the physics book said that resistors in parallel go as 1/R. I liked understanding the overall relationship rather than focusing on a single practical instance.
You know, give a man a fish, you'll feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, you feed him for life.
Show a physicist how to fish, and that person will analyze the process to come up with a set of equations that describe the arc of the hook during casting, the motion of bobber on the water, the glitter of the lure in the sun, and so on. Show an engineer how to fish and they'll invent a fishing machine that will feed a city.
Therein lies the problem with the Nobel physics prize. Yes, DRAM and flash memory are based on developing a transistor, work that already garnered a Nobel for Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, but I'd submit that DRAM and flash memory take that technology somewhere entirely else. It's high time that both men received recognition. The likelihood is pretty high that next year's award will go to the Higgs boson work, but surely there's room to squeeze in memory somewhere along there, isn't there?
So come on, Nobel physics committee, what's the deal?
True, but on the other hand, Geim and Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for isolating graphene, even though the material had been theorized about since 1947 and at least one other group had reported using the Scotch tape method as early as 1999. Granted, part of the Geim/Novoselov work had to do with characterization, but much of it was simply about isolating the material. Basically, they took the concept and turned it into reality. Conversely, the 2009 prize to Smith and Boyle for the CCD imager spawned some rather unbecoming controversy because it was felt in some quarters that while the two may have developed the concept, others were responsible for extending it to imaging, as named in the prize. The language of Alfred Nobel's will says to award prizes to those who, "...have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind...one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics..." Maybe Atanasoff made the discovery but Dennard was responsible for the invention, including the great benefit part.
In some ways, the bigger question is one of relevance. Nobel called out physics in his will most likely because it was considered most prestigious and valuable in his lifetime, during which major discoveries had come second fast. That is not to say that we've made all the major discoveries – obviously not – but in an increasingly technological society, the contributions of engineers have the potential to more profoundly impact our world. By having a separate honor for advanced technology, the Kyoto Prize program has made itself more relevant. Meanwhile, in the 60s, the Nobel organization ruled that it would add no more categories, so unless the various committees shoehorn something in, the program will increasingly ignore key advances that are changing the fabric of our lives.