We should celebrate both inventions and efficient optimizations of them, says Wally Rhines, CEO of Mentor Graphics and co-author of a 1974 patent on the blue LED, passed over recently by the Nobel committee.
This year, the Nobel Prize in physics went to three distinguished Japanese semiconductor engineers, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura for “invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes”. Press articles appeared questioning why the original inventor of the magnesium-doped GaN blue light emitting diode, Herbert P. Maruska, wasn’t included among the winners.
The answer appears to lie in the word “efficient.” But the bigger question seems to be whether conception and demonstration of an invention is more important, or the optimization of that invention.
The choice of Nobel Laureates varies on this question. In the case of Jack Kilby (Nobel Prize 2000) “for his role in the invention of the integrated circuit,” they chose the original developer who built an inefficient discretionary wired version of the integrated circuit (and described in his patent a more efficient planar one). They couldn’t include Robert Noyce, who was already deceased, but whose planar technology provided the efficiency needed for high-volume manufacturing.
In the case of the charge-coupled device, Boyle and Smith received the 2009 Nobel Prize, but the CCD they demonstrated was already highly “efficient” (99.99% charge transfer efficiency) in its original form.
For this year, one of the developers, Shuji Nakamura, was noted for developing an efficient form of the Mg-doped GaN that lent itself to cost effective manufacturing. Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura chose to base their work on Maruska’s discovery that doping GaN with magnesium would produce blue light. Maruska did this 20 years before development of the “efficient” improvements covered in the Nobel Prize.
Apple didn’t invent the cellphone. But Apple made improvements to the usability and infrastructure of cellular communications that were revolutionary. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile. But Ford optimized automobile design and manufacturing to make cars widely affordable. While Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura didn’t invent the Mg-doped GaN light emitting diode, they improved its efficiency to make it affordable for energy-efficient lighting throughout the world.
The general consensus today seems to be that efficiency improvements that make products economically manufacturable are the most valuable contribution to our society. But I can’t help but be concerned about the gradual decline in fundamental research-and-development spending in the US in the physical sciences.
Where will the inventions come from in the future that will lend themselves to optimization, like the blue LED? Invention of the Mg-doped GaN light emitting diode was a great achievement by Herbert Maruska, as were the efficiency improvements by the Nobel Prize winners. I hope we can continue to grow both types of contributors in the future.
— Wally Rhines is Chairman and CEO of Mentor Graphics. He was also co-author with Herbert Maruska on the 1974 patent 3,819,974 on the blue LED.