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2014 Nobel Prize in Physics — LED lights, seriously?

For some reason, I only learned about this year’s laureates today, through the reference frame. The prize goes to the inventors of the LED. Not exciting at all, so I don’t care if I’m ever informed. (Lubos has a good point on why applied physics — well, let’s even widen the concept of applied physics a bit — should not surprise anyone when they appear in a Nobel Prize announcement: “After all, Alfred Nobel might have very well considered his dynamite to be a discovery in physics, too.”)

The Nobel Prize Physics Awards has been rather amusing in recent years. Partly due to controversy on the theoretical front and no breakthrough on the experimental front, I guess. (The discovery of Higgs was a breakthrough to some extent, but it was totally expected; little physics beyond SM at LHC before LS1 is sad. Since it was totally expected, the award went to theorists — some experimentalists might not be too thrilled.) Just look at the recent list: 2010, graphene (shouldn’t that be chemistry? if material science can be part of physics, then chemistry must surely encompass it, too); 2009, CCD sensor (whatever that means, maybe that’s important); 2008, fibers (okay, I love fast Internet connections). The list actually goes all the way down to early 20th century, but it’s much denser in recent decades. Now one more: 2014, LED.

“for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”

Wow, energy-saving. I guess next year’s prize will go to the inventors of high efficiency urinals, for being resource-saving. I mean, LEDs are great, but not great as physics, much less a physics breakthrough.

Let’s compare the applied folks to other laureates: Lorentz, J. J. Thomson, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Dirac, Fermi, Pauli, Born, Lee, Yang, Landau, Feynman, Schwinger, Gell-Mann, Weinberg, ’t Hooft, etc. Not on the same level.

It’s good to see that a growing body of physicists are (or at least as it seems to me) increasingly reserved about the Nobel Prize, and prizes in general. Same goes for math, with the Nobel Prize replaced by something else. (Employers still love the big titles, I suppose — good to have some star faculty on board.)