How many Nobel Prize winners does it take to improve a light bulb?

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists who created the revolutionary LED light, which is 20 times more efficient than a standard incandescent bulb. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Jeffrey Brown to talk about the winners and their energy-saving research, plus a look at this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Read the Full Transcript

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Nobel Prize in Physics is often awarded to work that can be tough to explain to anyone who isn't actually a physicist. But this year's winners, announced earlier today, won for research that actually affects our everyday lives.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A trio of scientists won for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes, often referred to as LEDs.

    The blue LEDs, first created in the early 90s, paved the way for brighter and more energy-efficient white lights, the kind now seen on the screens of phones, TVs and computers, even signs on the subway.

    Two of the scientists were from Japan, one from the U.S.

    Our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, joins me now from Boston to tell us about it.

    So, Miles, the invention of blue light-emitting diodes, what exactly does that mean?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, we had red and we had green, and we needed blue the take it over the top.

    Let's step back for a little bit. Back in the '60s, when they created the first light-emitting diodes, red was the first one because it was the easiest to make. The semiconducting material that makes that particular color was much easier to make in an efficient way. Then came green. And you can think about the first calculator you got, which was always with a red light emitting diode. And eventually we got into green.

    But blue was difficult because the material that creates that particular color, that wavelength, was hard to work with. Gallium nitride was the tricky thing that was difficult for scientists and engineers to efficiently turn into the crystals to mass produce.

    But once you have red, green and blue, put them together, you have white light, and that's created a revolution.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, that's the word that the Nobel committee used, revolutionizing lighting. So it has seeped into all facets of life.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, think about the incandescent lightbulb, which is just a hot, glowing filament in a vacuum tube. Then we went to fluorescent lights, much more efficient.

    And now we're in the world of LEDs, which if you go back to the incandescent bulb, comparing it, 20 times more efficient, and lasts much longer. You know, a quarter of the energy on our planet is spent in creating light. And in order to reduce all of our need for energy and our carbon footprint, LEDs make a huge, significant impact.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, it's interesting. The academy also said that this year's prize is very specifically more for invention than discovery.

    We often look at these prizes, especially in something like physics, as going for more basic research.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes. Of course, last year they honored the — Professor Higgs of the Higgs boson, the God particle, if you will, which takes us right back to the very origins of everything, the Big Bang, but difficult to say that has any real-world application, except that it helps us understand where we all came from.

    This is applied science at its best. If you look back to what Alfred Nobel wanted when he created this prize, it was something that had huge impact on humanity and how we live. And, certainly, the LED light has done that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That's what he wanted, but it doesn't — it doesn't usually come out that way, at least in immediate practical responses from the work, right?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes.

    No, frankly, for those of us on the outside of the world of physics, sometimes, it's hard to decipher exactly what happened, right?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Exactly.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Right?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Because we're talking about very esoteric things.

    And it takes a little bit of work to understand the significance. In this case, we all immediately know, wow, that LED light which is on my smartphone, which powers my battery, which is changing the way streetlighting works, is changing things in the Third World in very significant ways, where people are turning in kerosene lanterns for LED lights, it's had a huge impact, and it's only really just begun in some ways.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, let me just, in our last minute or so here, let's turn to yesterday's announcement, which was the prize for medicine. This was described as a kind of GPS system for the brain, using another kind of technology that we're all now familiar with, but applying it to brain research.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes.

    The award was split between two — three scientists, two of them — two teams. One — the first bit of research goes back a while to the discovery that the hippocampus part of our brain is what maps our orientation. They actually looked inside a rodent's brain as it was moving around a room and could see when it was any — in any particular place a specific part of the brain would sort of light up, with you — if you will.

    That was further enhanced by a married couple team from Norway which found a neighboring region of the brain where we actually have the ability to set up sort of a grid system, which allows us to remember where we parked the car, for example, to give us kind of a spatial orientation.

    And in looking at the way the rats navigate and seeing what their brains are doing, they really understand how this works. So what is really exciting about all this is this is what we first see the early signs of Alzheimer's disease. And understanding what's going on with this part of the brain might help us, first of all, diagnose sooner, and also might help us understand Alzheimer's in a more meaningful way, where we can provide some treatments.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, so this prize really is for potential, looking forward to some spectacular work in the future perhaps, right?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    One would hope, but it is really interesting to understand how our brain has the ability to kind of create its own — you know, we say in our mind's eye. This is our mind's eye.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. Miles O'Brien, thank you so much.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome.

Listen to this Segment