PORTLAND, Ore.—The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) scientist responsible for major paradigm shifts that have repeatedly redefined modern materials science, American scientist John Werner Cahn, recently received the Kyoto Prize in advanced technologies in San Diego.
Born in Cologne, Germany, Cahn immigrated to the U.S., where he made his first paradigm-shifting discovery at General Electric's research lab (Schenectady, N.Y.), solving a long-standing problem in metallurgy with John Hilliard. The resulting Cahn-Hilliard Equation enabled designers to specify the properties required of a metal, then calculate the methods needed to create it. Before this paradigm shift metallurgical breakthroughs required long trial-and-error methodology.
Cahn became a materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1964, then joined the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) in 1977. In 1982, together with Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman, Cahn again contributed a paradigm-shifting contribution to materials science by authoring the seminal paper on quasicrystals, a promising new material that is still a hot semiconductor research topic today because of its novel low-temperature conductivity properties.
Cahn was honored in Japan on Nov. 9, 2011, receiving a 20-karat-gold medallion and $625,000. The ceremony and gala is being repeated this week for the U.S. audience, March 20-22, in San Diego.
According to NIST, the modern smartphone has over 100 different materials in it, and John Cahn's work enabled over half of them. Their are lots of engineering awards out there, but the Kyoto Prize is the only Nobel-caliber recognition that engineers can attain. I spoke with Cahn this week, and he expressed deep gratitude that honor at having been selected. And unlike the Nobel Prize, which has become a political football in recent years, there are no politics being played by the star-studded Kyoto Prize selection committee, which picks its laureates by unanimous decision.
I applaud John Cahn! I wonder how many college students dream of being a materials scientist? There is much to be discovered in materials and while it takes a lot of work the payoffs can be most rewarding. Perhaps this success story will help to inspire others to pursue study in materials, one can only hope.
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