A Nobel prize for the science behind hard drives

The giant magnetoresistive effect lets you put a whole season of "The Surreal Life" on a disk as big as your pinkie.

Published October 9, 2007 5:27PM (EDT)

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced today that the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics would go to Albert Fert and Peter Gruenberg, two European scientists who in 1988 independently discovered a quantum mechanical effect known as giant magnetoresistance. Put simply, the discovery described how electrical resistance changes according to slight differences in magnetism across a thin magnetic film. It was, consequently, crucial to the development of miniature hard drives with huge storage capacity.

Hard disk heads based on GMR, as the effect is known, were first put into drives in the late 1990s. GMR has since become a standard technology. "'You would not have an iPod without this effect," one of the Nobel judges told the Associated Press.

Gruenberg, who holds the patent on GMR, told the AP that his share of the $1.5 million prize money would help him do research "without having to apply for grants for every tiny bit.'' Fert says he'll share his money with his colleagues, and he'll buy new windsurfing sails.

Giant magnetoresistive effect [Wikipedia]

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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