A Better Way to Shine Light in a Dark World

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Years ago I purchased a headlamp — a small flashlight that straps around your head to light your way. It’s really useful because it leaves both your hands free as you work or walk. I used my headlamp during the dark half of the year to exercise my dog in dark pastures and an undeveloped No Man’s Land on a steep hill near my house.

My headlamp used an old fashioned light bulb and a fairly heavy battery to run it. I used it for years but it finally stopped working, so I recently purchased a new headlamp. Technology has changed, and for the better — the new light uses a light emitting diode, or LED, and much smaller batteries. I’ve tested it, and I think it puts out more light than my older, heavier model used to do. One thing is for sure, it’s easier on my head because it weighs a good deal less than my old model.

Recently the Nobel committee in Sweden announced that three scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their role in creating the LED light, such as the one that powers my new headlamp. Two of the scientists, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano, are in Japan, at Nagoya University. A third, Shuji Nakamura, is at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The three will receive a total of 8 million Swedish kronor, which is worth about $1.2 million according to a CNN report. They received the award for their work creating the blue LED in the 1990s.

For more than a generation, scientists labored to create a blue LED. Green and red LEDs had existed for years, but a blue LED remained elusive. When the trio of researchers created the blue LED, white light from LEDs became possible.

“They succeeded where everyone else had failed,” said the Nobel committee as quoted by the CNN report.

It’s rare that a Nobel Prize in physics directly touches our lives. But the new LED technology is important to all of us because LEDs are more efficient than old light bulbs and even compact fluorescents. In addition, fluorescent bulbs often contain mercury, something not found in LEDs. To top it all off, LEDs last a long time. People like my brother are putting LED lights into new buildings because of their advantages over old technology. And LEDs are found in more and more of our gadgets and devices.

It’s getting darker earlier each evening here in the Northern Tier state where I live. I will soon be relying on my LED headlamp as I walk the dog after work. I’ll remember the three scientists who made my new headlamp possible and celebrate their Nobel Prize in Physics.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.