Peter Grünberg, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who discovered how to store vast amounts of data by manipulating the magnetic and electrical fields of thin layers of atoms, making possible devices like the iPad and the smartphone, has died at 78.
Dr. Grünberg shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007 with Albert Fert of the Université Paris-Sud in Orsay. They had independently made the same discovery — of an effect known as giant magnetoresistance, in which tiny changes in a magnetic field can result in huge changes in electrical resistance.
The effect is at the heart of modern gadgets that record music, video or other data as dense magnetic patchworks of ones and zeros — that is to say, electronic tablets and smartphones, the GPS devices in our pockets and handbags.
“The MP3 and iPod industry would not have existed without this discovery,” Börje Johansson of the Swedish Royal Academy said when the Nobel was announced. “You would not have an iPod without this effect.”
The Juelich institute said as much in a statement:
“Without exaggeration, one can say Peter Grünberg and his discovery of giant magnetoresistance decisively changed our lives. Without him, modern computers and smartphones as we know them would be unthinkable.”
Peter Andreas Grünberg was born on May 18, 1939, in Pilsen, in what is now the Czech Republic. His father, Theodore, was a mechanical engineer who designed locomotives. The elder Mr. Grünberg died in a Czech prison camp in 1945. Subsequently, Peter, an older sister and their mother, Anna, were expelled to Lauterbach in western Germany.
Peter Grünberg entered Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt in 1959. In 1963 he entered the Darmstadt University of Technology, emerging with a Ph.D. in physics in 1969.
He married Helma Prauser, a future teacher he had met in 1966 during his studies in Frankfurt. They had a son, Andreas; two daughters, Sylvia and Katharina; and two granddaughters. There was no immediate information on survivors.
After a postdoctoral fellowship at Carleton University in Ottawa, Dr. Grünberg joined the Institute of Solid State Research at the Juelich Research Center, near Cologne, in 1972 and stayed there until he retired in 2004.
Engineers have been recording information magnetically and reading it out electrically…
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