The Nobel Prize medal that Francis Crick received for his part in discovering DNA's molecular structure has been sold for more than $2 million.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The Nobel Prize medal that Francis Crick won for his role in a historic DNA discovery was sold Thursday for more than $2 million to a Shanghai biotech executive who plans to use it to promote science in China, the auction house behind the sale said.
The buying spree at Heritage Auctions in New York follows Wednesday's record-setting $6 million sale of a letter that Crick wrote to his son in 1953, in which the scientist sketched out the DNA molecule's double-helix structure weeks before the discovery was revealed publicly.
The purchaser of that letter has remained anonymous, but Heritage Auctions said the 23-carat gold medal was bought by Jack Wang, who heads a Shanghai-based biomedical venture called Biomobie. At the end of a vigorous round of bidding, Wang put in the top offer of $1.9 million for the medal and its accompanying diploma. The traditional buyer's premium boosted the total price to $2,270,500.
Among those in the audience were members of Crick's family — including his son, Michael, whose letter was sold at Christie's the day before. "This is a good week for you guys, eh?" Kathleen Guzman, the auctioneer at Heritage Auctions, joked after the bidding for the medal ended.
Heritage said Wang also purchased the canceled check that Crick received as his monetary share of the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology back in 1962, for a total price of $77,675. That year's prize was shared with Crick's collaborator, James Watson, as well as rival researcher Maurice Wilkins. The face value on the check was 85,739.88 Swedish krona, which is equal to a little more than $13,500 today. The current monetary value attached to the Nobel Prize is $1.25 million.
Bebeto Matthews / AP
Kendra Crick stands beside her father, Michael Crick, as he holds the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine that was awarded to his father, Francis Crick.
The Shanghai bidder rounded out his collection with an $8,962.50 lab coat of Crick's, emblazoned with a gold spiral logo reminiscent of a DNA molecule.
Heritage Auctions' president, Greg Rohan, told NBC News that Wang intended to display the items in Shanghai to promote science and medicine in China. In a statement issued by the auction house, Wang made a connection between the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure in 1953 and his company's work with a hand-held device that's intended to have a therapeutic device.
"Dr. Crick’s Nobel Prize medal and diploma will be used to encourage scientists unraveling the mysteries of the Bioboosti, a bio electrical signal that may control and enable the regeneration of damaged human organs,” Wang said in the statement. "The discovery of the Bioboosti may launch a biomedical revolution like the discovery of the structure of DNA. It may recover damaged human organs and retard the aging process, achieving the goal of self-recovering from disease and poor health conditions."
Nobel Prize medals are rarely sold, although Danish physicist Aage Niels Bohr's 1975 medal was auctioned last year at a price of $47,755. Heritage expected Crick's medal to go for more, in part because the DNA double-helix discovery was so groundbreaking. Nevertheless, the purchase price was toward the high end of expectations: In advance of Thursday's sale, the value was estimated at $500,000 or more.
Crick's family held onto the medal after the biologist's death in 2004 but decided to sell it in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the DNA milestone. In addition to the medal and the diploma, the check and the lab coat, the auction offered an assortment of books, maps and journals from Crick's collection up for sale. The big-ticket item was a set of four gardening journals that went for $10,755.
Before the sale, Michael Crick told NBC News that 20 percent of the proceeds would go to the Francis Crick Institute in London, which is scheduled to open in 2015. The remainder will be divided among Francis Crick's heirs.
The Large Hadron Collider's CMS Collaboration gets its collective picture taken in front of a full-scale picture of the CMS detector at Europe's CERN particle physics lab. More than 3,000 scientists, engineers and students are involved in the CMS Collaboration, and just about that many more are involved in the collaboration for the LHC's other primary detector, ATLAS.
The Higgs boson received nary a mention at this year's Nobel Prize proceedings — and although the Higgs hunt has been the biggest news in physics over the past year, there are good reasons for the silence. Next year, however, the Nobel committee could have a huge Higgs hassle on its hands. And maybe that's a good thing.
Some observers think the conundrum surrounding a potential physics prize for the Higgs boson could lead the Nobel committee to make some long-overdue changes. And that, in turn, could change the public perception of how science is done.
First, here's the main reason why this year's discovery of a "Higgs-like particle" wasn't Nobel-worthy this year, even though it validated a 40-year quest: The key breakthrough came to light in July, when the teams behind the Large Hadron Collider's two main experiments — ATLAS and CMS — declared that they had enough data to merit an official discovery of a new subatomic particle. That's well past the traditional deadline for nominations, and although deadlines can be bent, the findings still need to be firmed up.
MIT physicist Frank Wilczek, who won a share of the 2004 Nobel Prize for his theoretical work on the strong nuclear force, said as much in an interview with LiveScience's Clara Moskowitz: "There are ways to stretch the rules, but evidently the relevant decision-makers felt that there was not sufficient reason to do so in this case."
Wilczek added that a Nobel Prize recognizing the theoretical underpinnings behind the Higgs boson was "the odds-on favorite for next year."
Too soon? Usually, the committee in charge of awarding the physics prize waits until a breakthrough becomes so much a part of the scientific mainstream that there's no doubt about its truth and its value. That's the way it was this year, when French physicist Serge Haroche and American physicist David Wineland were honored for work in quantum optics that they pioneered 20 years ago.
When it comes to the Higgs, however, the clock is ticking: British physicist Peter Higgs —who lent his name to the theory, the field and the particle that would explain the origins of particle mass — is 83 years old. Other contributors to the theory are of a similar age. The theory itself was developed in the 1960s, and the real marvel is that Higgs and his colleagues were proven so right, so long after they came up with the idea.
But tradition dictates that the prize can be shared by no more than three individuals, who all have to be alive (although that rule was bent last year). Besides Peter Higgs, who should be in on the glory? Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, who has just finished a book about the Higgs quest titled "The Particle at the End of the Universe," says Belgian physicist Francois Englert is the best candidate for the second spot. Several others have valid claims on the third spot, however. And then, how about recognizing the thousands of physicists who worked on the LHC collaborations?
This is the sort of quandary that has tied physicists in knots for years. Wilczek himself has said he's using the "no more than three" rule as a key plot device in a murder mystery he's writing, tentatively titled "The Attraction of Darkness." It's about a team of four physicists who discover the true nature of dark matter, and find themselves up for a Nobel Prize. "One of the four dies, supposedly a suicide, but then, maybe not," he told The New York Times.
Do the right thing The way Carroll sees it, the Higgs hassle provides a perfect opportunity for the Nobel committee members to change their tradition — and ruin the premise of Wilczek's novel in the process.
"They can do the right thing, and stop insisting that only three people can win it," Carroll told me. "Maybe that's something they can talk about over the next 365 days."
Some might think recognizing groups rather than individuals would represent a dilution of Nobel prestige — but it can easily be argued that the change would bring the scientific prizes in line with the practice for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is routinely awarded to organizations ranging from the International Committee of the Red Cross (1917, 1944, 1963) to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007).
The change could also shift the popular perception of the scientific process — away from the image of a scientist slaving away alone in a basement lab, and toward a more complex picture of scores, hundreds or thousands of researchers working together, connected via global networks. In short, the picture that actually reflects how science is usually done nowadays.
Do you agree? If not, why not? If so, what's the best way to convince the Nobel committee to make a noble change? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Correction for 4:40 p.m. ET Oct. 11: I originally wrote that Belgian physicist Francois Englert was French. That error has been corrected. Pardonnez-moi s'il vous plaît!
This year's Nobel Peace Prize will honor a positive development in the world, the prize committee's chairman says.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Update for 6 p.m. ET Oct. 7: The Nobel Peace Prize went to three women from Africa: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian human-rights activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. Karman's selection as part of the trio served to recognize the contribution of the Arab Spring movement, according to prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland. That's as close as the Nobel committee came to recognizing the contribution of social media. So ... I think I should hang up my Nobel prediction mantle and leave the job to the professionals.
From Oct. 5: This year's Nobel Peace Prize, due to be announced early Friday in Norway, seems certain to have a social-media spin. The only question is, which Twitterers or Facebookers will be listed on the Nobel committee's citation?
Although the identity of the laureate or laureates-to-be is a closely held secret, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee sounds as if he's itching to let the cat out of the bag in a series of interviews given during the run-up to Friday's announcement.
"It will be an interesting and very important prize ... I think it will be well-received," Thorbjoern Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, told Reuters a few days ago. That stoked speculation that the prize would go to activists involved in the Arab Spring democracy movement. Those activists famously used Twitter and Facebook to organize anti-government protests in Arab countries from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, ushering in nascent democracies.
Jagland went further in an Associated Press interview today. "The most positive development will get the prize," he said. "So I'm a little bit surprised that it has not already been seen by many commentators and experts and all this, because for me it's obvious."
He said the fact that the deadline for Nobel nominations fell in February did "not necessarily" rule out giving the prize to leaders of the Arab Spring, which came to a head in Egypt in early February. "We saw many of the actors at the time, but that doesn't mean that the prize goes in that direction, because there are many other positive developments in the world," Jagland said.
AP's Jamey Keaten came right out and asked whether the Arab Spring might be the source of the honoree, and Jagland responded: "That is one, but there are others, too."
How about the 27-nation European Union? Wouldn't that be considered a major peace-building institution? "Yes, of course, but today it's ..." he said. A press handler stopped him from saying anything more on that score.
Jagland said the Peace Prize honors would go to "not necessarily a big name, but a big mission — something important for the world."
The five-member committee decided upon the laureate at its final meeting last Friday. A record 241 nominations, including 188 individuals and 53 organizations, were submitted for consideration. Committee members could add their own suggestions until Feb. 28. That's just about the time that the anti-Gadhafi Libyan revolution was heating up.
"For me and the committee, I think it's quite obvious if you look at the world today and see what is happening out there," Jagland said. "What are the major forces pushing the world in the right direction?"
You don't have to have 17,000 Twitter followers to see that social networkers would rank among those who have "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations," as specified by industrialist Alfred Nobel in 1895 when he set up the Peace Prize. Commentators have floated lots of names of Arab Spring activists who used social media, including Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim, Egyptian April 6 Youth Movement leaders Israa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher, and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni.
But if the prize is going to these leaders, or even to the April 6 Youth Movement as a group, why would Jagland voice surprise that the development honored by the prize has not yet been seen by so many? Also, Jagland's comment that "there are others" beyond the Arab Spring movement suggests that the committee might be looking beyond just Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
This suggests a couple of potential twists: The prize could go to an array of activists including but not limited to the Arab Spring movement. The group of honorees might even include the folks involved in facilitating the global use of social media from outside.
Might Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter's founders win a share of the medal? That seems unlikely — not only because social-media tools have been used for evil as well as for good, but also because focusing too much on the technological tools would detract from the achievements of activists on the ground.
"Of course cyber activism as a movement can change things, but we cannot forget that the Tunisian revolution began on the ground," Ben Mhenni told AFP.
Another Tunisian activist, Riadh Guerfali, voiced a similar sentiment. "It wasn't Twitter, it wasn't Facebook that carried out the revolutions," Guerfali told AFP from Tunis. "Here, we are the children of those who were imprisoned, tortured, of those who truly sacrificed their lives."
Those children of the revolution, from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, should win recognition. But based on Jagland's comments, there's a chance that others, living far away from North Africa but connected through the global Internet, will be given a nod as well.
So even if the Nobel Peace Prize goes to someone completely different (Wikileaks, for example), my track record can't get much worse. Keep an eye on the Nobel website and BreakingNews.com to get the answer, sometime around 7 a.m. ET Friday.
... And a program note: Speaking of the Nobel Prize, Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll and I will be talking about the implications of this year's physics prize and other weird and interesting research tonight at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) on "Virtually Speaking Science," an online talk show that I host on the first Wednesday of the month. You can listen to the hourlong show via BlogTalkRadio, or be a part of the audience at the Stella Nova auditorium in the virtual world known as Second Life. (Here's the SLURL for your teleporting pleasure.) You can ask questions during the show via Second Life chat or BlogTalkRadio's call-in number.
If you can't make it in real time, don't worry: The show will be archived at BlogTalkRadio as an audio podcast for on-demand listening. Many thanks to the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics for providing the Second Life venue.
What's dark energy? In this illustration, the mysterious repulsive force is represented as a smooth purple grid that overwhelms the effects of gravity (represented by a lumpy green grid).
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Most of the research recognized by a Nobel Prize has to do with solutions, but this year's physics prize highlights a problem that's been bugging scientists for more than a decade. And there may be more such problems to chew on in the years ahead.
"The way science makes progress is through an interplay between theory and observation," Sean M. Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, told me today. But when it comes down to theory vs. observation, "observations always win," he said.
As an example, take the research that won today's Nobel Prize for physics: When the three physicists who won the award started charting the brightness of distant supernovae, they expected to find out how much the expansion of the universe was slowing down, in accord with the accepted theories for cosmic evolution. Instead, they were surprised to find that the expansion rate was speeding up.
"We thought this would be an interesting experiment to do, but we didn't know it would be this interesting," one of today's Nobel laureates, Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist Adam Riess, told journalists during a teleconference.
Physicists didn't have a good explanation in 1998 for why the cosmos should go against gravity's pull and fly apart at a faster and faster rate. And they still don't. Their best guess is that our universe has a built-in, outward-pushing feature known as dark energy, which appears in Albert Einstein's equations for relativity as a cosmological constant.
"Dark energy still looks like the right answer — the best guess, I should say," Riess said. Einstein's cosmological constant appears to account for the effect to within 10 percent accuracy, he said. But physicists are in the dark about the mechanism. It's as if you're watching a car speeding down the road, faster and faster. Riess said you might hypothesize that there's such a thing as a gas pedal, and that pressing on it was causing the speedup. But there's not yet any way to say for sure. And there's no guarantee that the speedup will continue. There might still be a let-up on the cosmic accelerator, "in which case all bets are off," Riess said.
So is this Nobel premature? Riess said it was important to note that the prize was "awarded for seeing or discovering that the universe is accelerating," rather than for explaining why.
Caltech's Sean Carroll of Caltech describes dark energy and the accelerating universe.for "Minute Physics."
How to crack the mystery There are lots of experiments in the works to expand upon the discovery made by Riess and his fellow Nobel laureates, Saul Perlmutter of the University of California at Berkeley and Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University in Canberra. Just today, the European Space Agency gave its go-ahead for the 2019 launch of the $650 million Euclid space telescope, which is designed to study dark energy's effects on the large-scale structure of the universe. NASA's $1.6 billion Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, would also target the mystery surrounding dark energy.
But Riess suspects that the mystery can't be solved by observations alone. "We won't really resolve it until some brilliant person, the next Einstein-like person, is able to get the idea of what's going on," he said.
So he issued a plea to the theorists: "Keep working," he said. "We need your help. ... It's a very juicy problem, it's hard, and you'll win a Nobel Prize if you figure it out. In fact, I'll give you mine."
Carroll, the theorist, was sympathetic to Riess' plea. But he wasn't overly encouraging.
"You don't need to tell us that this is a big one," Carroll said. "Many of us have tried. I've tried. I've written many papers about it. But it's hard."
There are plenty of possibilities, to be sure. The acceleration could be caused by vacuum energy that doesn't vary over time, but is just a feature of empty space. It could be a slowly varying quality of the cosmos known among physicists as "quintessence." It could be some unanticipated twist in the nature of gravity, or a byproduct of multidimensional spheres of existence.
"I've spent my time on this, and I'm increasingly willing to predict that the answer is a boring one," Carroll said. Maybe the best that scientists can ever say is that this is just the way our universe works.
More deep, dark questions For now, dark energy is just one item on a growing list of puzzling questions for big-thinking physicists — questions that also include:
What's dark matter made out of? Observations from the past decade suggest that dark energy accounts for 74 percent of the universe's mass-energy content, and that another 22 percent consists of similarly mysterious stuff known as dark matter. So far, dark matter has been detected only through its gravitational effect, but physicists have come to assume that it takes the form of exotic subatomic particles that interact only weakly with the 4 percent of the universe we can see. Researchers had been hoping they'd see the signature of those exotic particles at the Large Hadron Collider, but so far there's been no sign.
Where's the Higgs boson? Researchers are also looking for the Higgs boson, the last fundamental particle whose existence is predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. Fermilab's Tevatron collider had been in the hunt until its shutdown last week, and if there's no confirmed detection hiding within the Tevatron data yet to be analyzed, it'll be up to the LHC to spot the Higgs, which is thought to be responsible for creating the mass of some subatomic particles and has been nicknamed the "God Particle." Again, there's been no sign so far, but physicists say they should know within the next year or so whether the Higgs exists. If there's no such thing, theorists might have to rewrite one of the scientific world's most successful theories.
Why does the universe seem fine-tuned? A good number of physicists have noted that if the fundamental constants of physics had been tweaked slightly differently, life as we know it — perhaps even the universe as we know it — could not have endured for long, if at all. If you ascribe the workings of the cosmos to God, this doesn't present a problem. But this apparent "fine-tuning" poses a challenge if you're trying to explain why the universe is just so. One possibility would be to say there's a plenitude of universes out there, and we just happen to be in a universe that works pretty well. Or maybe the universe is governed by a "feedback loop" that operates forward and backward in time. Or maybe it's some sort of weird quantum phenomenon, as Stephen Hawking has proposed. As Keanu Reeves might say: "Whoa..."
Why does time run only one way? Speaking of time's direction, Carroll's favorite conundrum has to do with why we experience time in only one direction, moving from the past into the future. In his book "From Eternity to Here," Carroll makes the case that the arrow of time moves in the same direction as entropy, from low entropy at the time of the big bang to higher entropy today, and even higher entropy tomorrow. "The question is, why was entropy low near the big bang?" Carroll said. "I'm still very much up in the air as to the answer to that question." As he studies that question, Carroll is delving into other puzzles ranging from the origin of life to the debate about free will vs. determinism. "You don't have to get into those age-old questions," Carroll admitted. "My own impulse is to enjoy those questions and get into this."
Was Einstein wrong about the speed of light? This is one of the most recent unsettled questions for modern physics. For more than a century, the overwhelming evidence has been that Einstein's special relativity theory was correct in claiming that nothing could move faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. That's now been called into question by observations suggesting that some neutrinos achieved faster-than-light speeds during a 450-mile trip between two underground labs in Europe. Carroll said the observations are "very, very unlikely to be right," but if they are verified, that would force a radical reinterpretation of Einstein's theories.
Faster-than-light neutrinos would be far more troublesome for scientists than the speeding-up universe. As strange as the Nobel-winning supernova observations appear to be, Carroll said they actually "explain a whole bunch of things that people had been worrying about for a long while," including apparent discrepancies in measurements of the universe's age.
"Unlike the 'accelerating universe,' ... the faster-than-light neutrinos would create a whole bunch of problems to worry about," Carroll said. For example, would the phenomenon allow for backward time travel and reverse causality? Could a neutrino go back in time and "kill its grandfather"?
In a posting to the Cosmic Variance blog, Carroll floats some ideas that could get theorists out of a time-traveling jam, but it wouldn't be pretty. "If neutrinos are moving faster than light, the question is, how can we adapt special relativity to a framework which allows for this?" he said.
Riess, the experimenter, offered some advice for Carroll and his fellow theorists, based on his experience with the surprising supernova observations.
"As a lot of my colleagues say when they hear about a strange result, they go, 'Oh, that's wrong,' and usually 'How do you know?' then, 'Well, most things that are weird turn out to be wrong.' And that's true," Riess said. "But you don't want to completely close your ears and eyes to seeing weird things, because a lot of the most interesting things we see at some point were the weird things."
Tune in to 'Virtually Speaking Science' Carroll and I will be talking about the accelerating universe, faster-than-light neutrinos and other weird and interesting things on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) on "Virtually Speaking Science," an online talk show that I host on the first Wednesday of the month. You can listen to the hourlong show via BlogTalkRadio, or be a part of the audience at the Stella Nova auditorium in the virtual world known as Second Life. (Here's the SLURL for your teleporting pleasure.) You can ask questions during the show via Second Life chat or BlogTalkRadio's call-in number.
If you can't make it in real time, don't worry: The show will be archived at BlogTalkRadio as an audio podcast for on-demand listening. Many thanks to the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics for providing the Second Life venue.
Carroll will also be a featured speaker for the New Horizons in Science symposium, presented Oct. 16-18 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing as part of ScienceWriters2011. I'm a member of the CASW board.
Images of graphene integrated circuits are shown here. On top is an optical image of a completed graphene mixer including contact pads. On the bottom is a scanning electron image of a top-gated, dual-channel graphene transistor used in the mixer integrated circuit.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Wireless communications took a small leap forward today with the announcement that researchers have created a functional integrated circuit smaller than a grain of salt.
The circuit is a broadband frequency mixer, which is "one of the most fundamental and important circuits in essentially all wireless communication devices and equipment," Yu-Ming Lin, an IBM researcher who led the effort, told me today.
Mixers, for example, convert low-frequency audio signals into high-frequency signals that can be transmitted wirelessly. The new circuit is made of graphene, the Nobel Prize worthy crystalline material made with a single layer of carbon atoms.
The research community has been abuzz over graphene for the past few years because it is the strongest crystalline material yet known, can be stretched like rubber and is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity.
It is being eyed for a range of technologies such as lighter and cheaper body armor, touchscreen displays and chemical sensors.
Last month, we reported on the use of the material in an optical modulator, which switches light on and off and thus has the potential to serve as a blazingly fast broadband data pipe. Today, Lin and colleagues report in Science the integration of a graphene transistor onto a silicon carbide wafer.
"This is a circuit component that has a real function, a practical use in a real application, for example the cellphone," Lin said. "The significance is, because of the integration, the entire circuit can be very small; in this case less than 1 millimeter squared."
Compared to silicon, the graphene transistor could be less expensive, use less energy and free up room inside portable electronics such as smart phones, where space is tight, the researchers note.
Until now, researchers have been unable to integrate graphene transistors with other components on a single chip primarily due to poor adhesion of graphene with metals and oxides and the lack of a fabrication scheme to yield reproducible devices and circuits.
Lin's team overcame these hurdles by developing wafer-scale fabrication procedures that maintain the quality of graphene and, at the same time, allow for its integration to other components. This is how IBM describes what they did:
In this demonstration, graphene is synthesized by thermal annealing of SiC wafers to form uniform graphene layers on the surface of SiC. The fabrication of graphene circuits involves four layers of metal and two layers of oxide to form top-gated graphene transistor, on-chip inductors and interconnects.
The circuit operates as a broadband frequency mixer, which produces output signals with mixed frequencies (sum and difference) of the input signals.
Mixers are fundamental components of many electronic communication systems.
Frequency mixing up to 10 GHz and excellent thermal stability up to 125°C has been demonstrated with the graphene integrated circuit.
Lin told me that this mixer circuit serves as a stepping stone to "a wide variety of more sophisticated and complicated circuits." For example, they could be integrated with medical imaging devices used for detecting cancer cells.
Going forward, the team will continue to improve the performance of the mixer and work on a more complex layout — more transistors on the chip, for example, enabling increased functionality.
The integrated circuit was invented by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments in 1958, a feat that earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000. That circuit had just one transistor but paved the way to the highly complex circuits used in electronics today, Lin noted.
"With that analogy, this is really one of the first stepping stones to a new function based on graphene," he said.
Schematic illustration of the graphene-based optical modulator. A layer of graphene (black fishnet) is placed on top of a silicon waveguide (blue), which is used as an optical fiber to guide light. Electric signals sent in from the side of the graphene through gold (Au) and platinum (Pt) electrodes alter the amount of photons the graphene absorbs
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Researchers have used graphene, a one-atom thick layer of crystallized carbon, to create a device that could potentially stream high-definition 3-D movies onto a smartphone in a matter of seconds.
The device, a tiny optical modulator, currently switches light on and off. This switching is the fundamental characteristic of a network modulator, which controls how fast data packets are transmitted. The faster the data pulses are sent out, the greater the volume of information that can be sent.
"This is the world's smallest optical modulator, and the modulator in data communications is the heart of speed control," Xiang Zhang, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley who led the research, said in a press release.
"Graphene enables us to make modulators that are incredibly compact and that potentially perform at speeds up to ten times faster than current technology allows. The new technology will significantly enhance our capabilities in ultrafast optical communication and computing."
Prize-worthy material The device is based on graphene, which was first extracted from graphite — the same material as pencil lead — in 2004 with Scotch tape. This achievement earned Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim at the University of Manchester a Nobel Prize in Physics last year.
Graphene is already being eyed for a range of technologies such as lighter and cheaper body armor, touchscreen displays and chemical sensors. It is the thinnest, strongest crystalline material yet known, can be stretched like rubber and is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity.
Zhang and his colleagues took advantage of the conducting ability, tuning graphene electrically to absorb light in wavelengths used in data communications.
They found that the energy of the electrons, referred to as Fermi level, can be easily altered depending upon the voltage applied to the material. The graphene's Fermi level in turn determines if the light is absorbed or not.
When a sufficient negative voltage is applied, electrons are drawn out of the graphene and are no longer available to absorb photons. The light is switched on because the graphene becomes totally transparent as the photons pass through, UC Berkeley explains.
Graphene is also transparent at certain positive voltages because, in that situation, the electrons become packed so tightly that they cannot absorb the photons. Zhang's team found a sweet spot in the middle where there is just enough voltage applied so the electrons can prevent the photons from passing, effectively switching the light off.
The breakthrough is described online May 8 in Nature. Xiaobo Yin, co-lead author of the paper and a research scientist in Zhang's lab, described it this way in the press release:
"If graphene were a hallway, and electrons were people, you could say that, when the hall is empty there's no one around to stop the photons. In the other extreme, when the hall is too crowded, people can't move and are ineffective in blocking the photons. It's in between these two scenarios that the electrons are allowed to interact with and absorb the photons and the graphene becomes opaque."
Optical modulator To create the optical modulator, the team layered graphene on top of a silicon wafer. They were able to achieve a modulation speed of 1 gigahertz, but noted the speed could theoretically reach as high as 500 gigahertz for a single modulator.
Using graphene in this way allows the researchers to scale down technologies that rely on photonics, such as fiber optic lines. The team has already shrunk a graphene-based modulator down to 25 square microns, which is roughly 400 times smaller than a human hair.
Even at this size, graphene can absorb a broad spectrum of light, ranging over thousands of nanometers from ultraviolet to infrared wavelengths. This allows graphene to carry more data than current state-of-the-art modulators, which operate at bandwidths of up to 10 nanometers.
"Instead of broadband, we will have extremeband," Zhang said.
So, yes, that really does mean a high-definition 3-D movie streamed to your smartphone in a matter of seconds.
This year's Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded for decades-old breakthroughs in the use of palladium to help synthesize useful compounds — a process that took the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 13 pages to explain. The easy way to explain it is to say palladium is a rare metal that acts as a catalyst or "matchmaker," marrying ingredients to produce all sorts of useful things for flat-screen displays, cancer drugs, asthma medicines and more.
"Any undergraduate who's taken chemistry is starting to see this in textbooks as really important chemistry," Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society, told me today. Francisco is a chemistry professor at Purdue University and hence a colleague of one of the laureates named today, Purdue's Ei-Ichi Negishi.
Negishi, along with the University of Delaware's Richard Heck and Hokkaido University's Akira Suzuki, were honored for their work in the 1960s and '70s to develop a technique called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling in organic synthesis. That's quite a mouthful, but it simply means they found a way to use palladium atoms to build smaller molecules into larger ones, The atoms act as "marriage brokers," in the words of Inside Science News Service's Steve Miller. Here's what Francisco told Miller:
"Think of palladium as the mutual friend who brings two people together for a handshake," Francisco said. "Palladium brings the right carbon atoms from two molecules together, performs the introduction, and then moves on."
The palladium atoms themselves emerge unchanged by the process, ready to introduce more carbon atoms to each other.
"The beautiful thing about this chemistry is it's very fundamental ... it can create new carbon bonds and certain functional groups that normally would be very difficult to create, in a very easy, very facile, very efficient way," Francisco told me.
Francisco said most chemists knew it was just a matter of time before Heck, Suzuki and Negishi won a Nobel for their work. "At the time, I don't think the Nobel laureates really anticipated just how broadly that chemistry would be applied, but it was," he said.
Pharmaceuticals: Painkillers ranging from synthetic morphine to naproxen (which is marketed under brand names such as Aleve or Midol Extended Relief). Asthma medicines such as montelukast (marketed as Singulair). Anti-cancer drugs such as synthetic Taxol as well as the candidate drug discodermolide (a synthetic version of a poison found in a Caribbean marine sponge) and diazonamide A (which appears to be effective in fighting colon cancer). Potential anti-viral drugs such as dragmacidin F (which affects the herpes virus and HIV). Antibiotics such as modified vancomycin (to fight MRSA infections).
Plastics: Heck developed the chemical reaction that now bears his name in order to create styrene, a major component in polystyrene plastic.
Electronics: Reactions involving palladium are used to optimize the blue light in organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, which have found their way into ultra-thin flat-screen displays. The Heck reaction also comes into play for producing resins used in electronic fabrication (such as Dow Chemical's Cyclotene).
... And more: The Heck reaction is a key step in the production of the herbicide Prosulforon. The Suzuki reaction is used to manufacture a fungicide known as Boscalid. And strangely enough, researchers reported just this year that they put palladium together with graphene, the one-atom-thick form of carbon that earned two other researchers the Nobel Prize in physics this week. Palladium-graphene hybrids could be used as catalysts for the Suzuki reaction, to produce new strains of polymer circuitry and liquid crystals.
"What's exciting about this is it's a case where fundamental chemistry has led to innovations in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries that bring benefit to the general public," Francisco said. "What can be more exciting than using fundamental chemistry to improve the lives of people worldwide? That's cool stuff."
This image of a carbon nanotube made from graphene was created using a scanning tunneling microscope. The reddish or yellow blobs are individual carbon atoms, with dark hexagonal holes between atoms.
What's graphene, and why is its development worth a Nobel Prize? In just a few years you might be riding in it, tapping on it as you use your iPhone 9, or watching 3-D TV on a lightweight, big-screen panel made using graphene.
But wait ... there's more: Sheets of graphene could also be tweaked to create electronic circuits that are mere molecules thick, or built into a new generation of body scanners for hospitals or airports.
And it all basically started with a strip of Scotch tape.
The researchers who shared the physics Nobel today, Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim of the University of Manchester, reported back in 2004 that they were able to demonstrate interesting electronic effects with ultra-thin sheets of carbon that they created "by mechanical exfoliation ... of small mesas of highly oriented pyrolytic graphite." In other words, they used Scotch tape to pull thin layers of carbon off a block of pencil lead.
That was the start of something big. Atom for atom, graphene turned out to be 100 times stronger than steel — in large part because the single-layered atoms are tightly bonded together in a honeycomb lattice.
Stronger, lighter composites One atom-thick sheet is not that tough, but when graphene sheets are incorporated into composites, you could come up with a material that's many times stronger than Kevlar. The Chinese are already working on carbon-nanotube yarn for spacesuits and bulletproof vests. Graphene composites could be produced less expensively than the current generation of carbon-nanotube composites. That opens the way for lighter, cheaper body armor, as well as lighter auto bodies and airplane fuselages as well. Maybe "graphene golf-club shafts" will become the status symbols of 2015.
Graphene in your touchscreen If you make the graphene sheets thin enough, they basically become transparent ... which has led some experts to suggest that the material could be used in a new generation of low-cost, crack-resistant display screens for televisions and laptops. This year, researchers reported that they created a working touch-screen display using graphene. Maybe the stuff will be ready for the market by the time that future iPhone 9 is ready to pop.
Will graphene replace silicon? There could be graphene inside the guts of that mobile device as well. Geim and Novoselov pioneered the study of graphene's electronic effects, but that work has been accelerating in the years since then. Electricity flows easily through graphene without losing much energy along the way. And scientists are finding ways to "dope" the material with other elements, opening the way for ultra-thin, ultra-fast circuitry. This year, IBM demonstrated a graphene-based transistor that operates 10 times faster than the fastest silicon chip. Maybe graphene is the thing that will keep Moore's Law going beyond the current age of silicon.
T-ray scanners The fast frequencies that can be achieved using graphene circuits are the key to another potential application. "Graphene might emerge as a basis for chemical sensors and for generators of terahertz-range light," Inside Science News Service's Philip Schewe explains. Terahertz radiation, or T-rays, are particularly well-suited for detecting hidden objects at airport security checkpoints without the health risk posed by X-rays. T-rays could also serve as the basis for medical scanning devices that come even closer to the "Star Trek" tricorder. T-ray scanning is already being used in Britain for skin-cancer screening and tooth-cavity detection. Maybe graphene will hasten the arrival of those brave new T-ray scanners, for better or worse.
Geim and Novoselov aren't in on all those applications, but their initial Scotch-tape experiments — along with the even more rigorous lab work that followed — are why they won a Nobel Prize today. So how long will it be before all these graphene dreams turn into real products?
"I can only accurately predict the past, not the future," Geim told Reuters. "I would compare this situation with the one 100 years ago when people discovered polymers. It took quite some time before polymers went into use in plastics and became so important in our lives."
But it's a sure thing that graphene will eventually make an impact — and for that we have Geim and Novoselov to thank, along with a host of other scientists and engineers. To learn more about the Nobel-winning pair's achievement, check out the background material from the Nobel Prize website, or read their detailed scientific paper about "The Rise of Graphene."