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Nobel Laureates Share Novel Thoughts
Molecules that can self-assemble...
Computers powerful enough to play virtual-reality games...
Television screens that can be rolled up and put into a pocket...
Lasers that emit cold light...
by Tan Lay Leng

hese are a few of the fascinating things to which we can look forward if we gaze into the crystal ball with four of the greatest authorities in the world of materials science.

To prove that plastics can be used as flexible-display panels, Professor Alan J Heeger, Chemistry Nobel laureate of 2000, showed a liquid plastic that can conduct electricity and emit light. Contradicting the conventional belief that equates plastic with insulator, the invention represents a new material that will pave the way for next-generation technologies in what Heeger called the "plastic electronics revolution." He said that plastics constitute a special class of materials that carry the optical and electronic properties of semiconductors but also have the processing advantages and mechanical properties of polymers.

By altering polymers to create a new class of semiconducting and metallic polymers, the processed materials can be melted down into solutions. This distinctive feature has its attractions because in liquid form, the materials can be processed quickly and easily, offering the possibility of very low-cost manufacturing, he explained.

"For instance, if you use these color liquids as inks in a printer, you can print your electronics," he said. "Add a display on top, roll it up, put it in a tube, and there's your computer! That's where we are going - desktop manufacturing of displays, and thin-film transistors…" He disclosed that many of these steps have already been demonstrated individually, so the concept is no longer a dream. "We will see displays on glass in cellular phones and in personal digital assistants next year," he elaborated. He predicted that within five years, colored displays on flexible substances could become reality.

He also reminded his listeners that the field of biomaterials represents an important area, with active research ongoing in artificial skin and nerve grafts. "We believe that we can create materials that will enable new technology to move quickly into new products," he added.

Professor Horst L Stormer, Physics Nobel laureate of 1998, observed that a lot of computing power presently goes into games and that soon it will be difficult to separate reality from "artificial reality." A display that could be rolled up and put into one's pocket "will totally change our behavior," just as the cellular phone has, he anticipated.

In the long term, the problem will not necessarily lie in miniaturization but in assembly. As structures become more complex, scientists look to nature for help. Rather than top down, the process will go from the bottom up as is happening in biology. "We are far from exploiting all the possibilities that nature gives us. There are millions of ways of arranging atoms and making different materials. The hardness of steel, the elasticity of the rubber band, the flexibility of a piece of wood - all this is determined on the nanoscale. By accessing these properties directly and changing them, we can create materials we cannot even dream of now…. There is a bright future for materials science because everything is made up of something, so we have lots and lots to do," Stormer enthused.

He pointed out that the miniaturization of components at the nano level is the area to watch closely. Instead of manually building a complex system, "intelligent" molecules imparted with the right properties can now assemble themselves and grow. He deadpanned that one day we may be able to grow a washing machine in the garden.

Professor Zhores I Alferov, who won the Nobel Physics Prize in 2000 for his contribution to the development of the technology used in satellite communications and cellular phones, has 50 inventions to his credit. This semiconductor expert who also specializes in lasers anticipated that special lasers under development in red, blue, and green light would enable television pictures to be displayed at a mere fraction of the energy presently required. This conception could also spell the eventual demise of the hot light bulb. New light sources such as light-emitting diodes that give out cold light would last longer and consume less energy.

Dr J Georg Bednorz, 1987 Nobel Physics laureate, who discovered materials that allow superconductivity at relatively higher temperatures, felt that manipulation of existing materials still has importance in discovering and devising completely new applications, and in producing new insight. For instance, the colossal magnetoresistive effect, derived from the old magnetic recording technology, detects minute magnetic bits in hard disks and will have significant impact on potentially increasing the capacity of storage. He cautioned that sometimes predictions of new technologies are too optimistic too early - as with the expectation that superconducting trains would whiz by on magnetic tracks when superconductivity was discovered decades ago.

Secret of Their Success

The Nobel Laureates were very down to earth about the qualities needed to achieve scientific breakthroughs. Enthusiasm, self-confidence, freedom of thought, and open-mindedness are some descriptive terms they immediately expressed. The courage to push boundaries and to challenge facts, the constant asking of "why?", the daring to go in a completely new direction, risk taking, and the personal conviction to go it alone - these are essential attributes in the continual quest for success.

Interaction with other scientists worldwide and learning from them are also crucial, said Bednorz, who heads a temperature superconductivity research group at IBM Zurich. He related a case in which a researcher from Japan who was attached to his laboratory learned perseverance after observing how his counterparts continued to work on certain substances even when the work seemed to be going nowhere. This researcher told Bednorz that he would have thrown away the samples immediately if he had been back in Japan.

Heeger suggested that the development of a "taste" for problems rates highly and that working with good scientists adds a bonus in the understanding of problems. A group of people who stimulate one another, or maybe even just the belief that the individual can do it, makes all the difference.

"When I was young, I worked with a colleague who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1972. Just being around him, and seeing how he thought about problems, paved the way for me. I tried to do that as well. So I think role models and experience with great scientists are very important," he reiterated.

Stormer agreed that a lot of smart people working together in a technology-rich environment help to facilitate the creation of good ideas and to generate research. There will be an emphasis on quality, excellence, and enthusiasm for the endeavor. He also felt that what differentiates successful smart people from their other equally smart compatriots is how driven they are - and how well they can interact.

All these factors and qualities, plus that elusive thing called luck, help the work both to get recognized and to win the grand prize.

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