Skip to main content

Seven Nobel Prize wins that herald the future of networks

The Nobel Prize has been running for 122 years and has seen numerous scientific breakthroughs. We look at some of the brilliant – and often-surprising – ways this research has already changed communications networks. Along with some of the changes we believe are coming longer term as networks develop and we slowly move towards the quantum era.

Popular consensus has it that Nobel Prize winning scientists are loner geniuses who only have their breakthroughs solo, in the dead of night. The reality is rather different. Scientists at the highest level learn from other researchers and thrive in creative scientific communities, where lunch conversations can inspire fresh perspective. 

Louis Brus, a former Bell Labs researcher who won the won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2023 for his work on quantum dots, spoke passionately about all this at a recent celebratory event. He highlighted the value of community, the need for curiosity, along with the freedom to follow the experiments in often surprising directions. He showed that while you innovate with purpose, other people – sometimes decades in the future – can take that research to often surprising places. 

This general trend can be seen in the 122 years of Nobel Prizes to date. Many of these breakthroughs, which have spanned multiple scientific disciplines, have changed the world. Yet their current practical applications would have blown the brilliant minds of those who won them. 

Back in 1901, when the Nobel Prize began, modern digital communications would have seemed astonishing. While the legacy of so many Nobel Prizes to create it, would have been inconceivable.

In tribute to all the pioneering research work that has gone on, this is our list of the Nobel Prizes that herald the future of networks, in chronological order. It’s based on looking at the past wins, canvassing the opinion of independent experts quoted below, and making our own judgements grounded in the way we believe networks are heading. 

Some of these Nobel Prizes have not yet realized their full potential in terms of application, but we’ve not been limited by this. The power of networks has already changed the world. And the future of networks – especially as we move to the quantum era – is likely to be awe inspiring. 

Louis Brus’ Nobel Prize Discovery of Quantum Dots

1) 1956, Physics – The transistor

The transistor provided the foundation of modern electronics – without this building block the internet wouldn’t exist

Who: John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley

What: In 1947, three Bell Labs scientists created a small semiconductor device. Today, there are trillions of transistors on Earth and billions in space. This breakthrough was truly the foundation of the digital age. 

Impact: Of all the incredible Nobel Prize winning innovations of the past 122 years, this single discovery probably had the greatest impact on networks to date. When we asked a wealth of independent experts to highlight their top Nobel Prize win, this was called out more times than anything else. 

William Green, an entrepreneurial website developer and publisher, who built the largest database of poetry analysis and stands an unusual intersection between science and the humanities, highlights the big picture by likening it to the printing press.

“Just as type democratized the spread of information, compared to elite hand-copied manuscripts, the transistor democratized computing power for the masses. It shrank electronics from room-sized computer behemoths into the microchips that power our modern gadgets, networks, and technologies,” he said.

“While many Nobel laureates deserve acclaim, the 1956 Physics Prize for the transistor stands apart in shaping and enabling virtually all technologies that define our digital present and future. It catalyzed a shift towards our modern networked world as transformative as movable type's spark lit the fire of the prior information revolution,” he added.

1) 1956, Physics – The transistor

2) 1964, Physics – The maser, precursor to the laser

Early research on lasers laid the groundwork for high-speed communications

Who: Charles Townes

What: This first Nobel Prize in the field of laser physics (“for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle”) set in a motion a journey towards more Nobel Prizes, and more ubiquitous use of laser technology. 

Impact: In the early days, laser technologies had few practical applications. And as Charles Townes himself put it in one interview: "People said, 'It's a nice idea, but what can it do?'" 

Since then, the laser has become the backbone of fiber optic communications along with diverse – yet often related set of applications – like sensing and material processing. 

“Lasers let information travel over long fiber optic cables at lightning speeds,” explained Kelly Indah, a security analyst at technology resource site, Increditools. “Fiber optic cables are what allow us to access the internet from anywhere. Without lasers, the internet wouldn't be possible.” 


3) 1971, Physics – Holographic imaging

Holographic imaging has many existing use cases, but could still change the future of networks in unthought of ways 

Who: Dennis Gabor

What: Gabor, the father of holography, made his first basic hologram in 1948. Then like many Nobel Prize winning breakthroughs, his research was built upon and taken to new heights. The invention of the laser enabled holograms to go 3D.

Impact: Jed Macosko, the research director at Academic Influence, which uses machine learning to rate academic institutions believes that while “on the surface [holography] may seem removed from networks… [Gabor’s] study of manipulating light waves underpins so many subsequent technologies.” 

“Optical discs allowed us to store massive amounts of data, paving the way for things like streaming video. Some experts even believe holographic storage could push data capacity to unfathomable new levels. So, his work established principles with ramifications we're still uncovering,” he said.

This point is seconded by cybersecurity specialist, Michael Robert: “I believe holography has potential in next-gen computing interfaces and ultra-dense storage solutions. Only time will tell, but his Nobel Prize showed how breakthrough science can enable technologies we can't even envision yet.”


4) 2000, Physics - Semiconductor heterostructures

The light source behind fiber optic cables provided the foundations for many future discoveries  

Who: Zhores Alferov and Herbert Kroemer 

What: Alferov and Kroemer's research on semiconductor heterostructures has had a profound impact on digital communication technologies. “These heterostructures are used to create highly efficient semiconductor laser diodes. These diodes are the light source behind fibre optic cables, the backbone of the modern internet,” said Marcin Bala, CEO of optical networking specialist Salumanus. 

Impact: This groundbreaking work laid the foundations for our networked world. Security specialist, Michael, explained: “Their work developing efficient compound semiconductors enabled the microchips and fiber optic cables that are now absolutely everywhere. I'd say winning a Nobel Prize doesn't get much more justified than unlocking the potential for global broadband communication like they did.”

Bala provided more context: “Fibre optics transmit data using light pulses, carrying vastly more information over longer distances compared to traditional copper cables. Today, these fiber optic cables can handle incredible data speeds, over one terabit per second (Tbps).” 


5) 2009, Physics – Fiber optics

The realities of fiber optics transformed physical networks and the way we communicate 

Who: Charles Kao

What: Charles Kao revolutionized fiber optics. He did this by discovering that optical fibers made from high-purity glass could transmit light signals over long distances. And then identified silica as a "crucial material" for developing fiber optic communications.

Impact: The growth of fiber optic cables has had a profound impact on our networked world. These cables – made up or stands of glass as thin as a human hair – now span over 800,000 miles underneath the ocean alone. They connect continents and silently run the internet. 

“His achievements set the stage for the high-speed digital world we inhabit,” said cybersecurity specialist, Michael Robert. 

Jed Macosko, of Academic Influence, added: “Being able to transmit data over thin strands of glass with light pulses allowed us to connect huge distances instantly. It's hard to overstate just how critical those high-capacity undersea cables have been for globalization. I don't think anyone anticipated just how dependent our world would become on that technology.”


6) 2022, Physics – Quantum entanglement

The scope of real-world uses for quantum entanglement are yet to be realized, but it is a critical phenomenon in the development of quantum networks  

Who: Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger 

What: Quantum entanglement – described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance” – enables quantum information to transport across distances. Even the most brilliant minds don’t quite know how it works. But it does. And working independently, the three recipients of the 2022 Nobel Prize all conducted new experiments to investigate the phenomenon. 

John F. Clauser conducted the foundation work. Alain Aspect built on this further. While Anton Zeilinger started to use entangled quantum states and, amongst other things, demonstrated a phenomenon called quantum teleportation – which has shades of the Star Trek Holodeck.

Impact: It is hard to determine the full impact this will have on the future of networks as we are at such an early stage of the quantum journey. However, breakthroughs in the understanding of entanglement will make a linked quantum network – a quantum internet – a reality.

In the US, Argonne Labs recently built a quantum loop that achieved quantum entanglement across a 56 kilometre fiber network through the Chicago suburbs. As we move towards a quantum future, these distances will become longer. 

The race is clearly on to develop quantum infrastructure. Governments around the world are putting a lot of money in, and as Dr Benjamin Lanyon at the University of Innsbruck put it in the EU’s innovation magazine, Horizon: “People are developing new applications of quantum networks at quite a high rate.”

Quantum Engagement

7) 2023, Chemistry – Quantum dots

Today quantum dots are a key part of optical communications, tomorrow they could prove fundamental to the brave new quantum era

Who: Louis Brus, Alexei Ekimov, and Moungi Bawendi

What: Discovered at Bell Labs back in the 1980s, quantum dots are nanoparticles so tiny that their size determines their properties. These smallest components of nanotechnology are already used in televisions, to guide surgeons when they remove tumor tissue, and in medical imaging, amongst many other places. But their extended applications in networks are only just starting to be realized as we enter the quantum era. 

Impact on networks: Today quantum dots are key components for quantum optical communication due to their ability to create ultra-pure single photon pulses on demand. Tomorrow, as new practical applications are discovered, they could also become not only the main laser technology for traditional communication networks, but also make up the critical components needed to create a quantum internet which, while a very long way off, is clearly on the horizon

“Quantum dots are expected to provide a huge impact on the future optical networks,” says Cosimo Calò III-V Semiconductor Process Engineer at Nokia Bell Labs. Explaining that, when they are used in devices like lasers, semiconductors or optical amplifiers, they should have a big impact on performance and energy consumption. “If we can build more efficient devices for all the pieces of the network, then we can save energy and build and a better world.” 

In terms of its real-world applications, this latest Nobel Prize – in chemistry rather than physics – clearly stands on the shoulders of all the giants who have gone before it. And realizing the full long-term potential of quantum will require harnessing quantum mechanics – such entanglement – as well as utilizing all the long taken-for-granted breakthroughs, like lasers and fiber optics. 

Only time will tell the full impact of quantum dots on future networks. But the quantum revolution looks likely to be as big – or bigger – than its predecessors. And the brilliant discoveries behind all these Nobel Prizes are just the start of a long, amazing journey, which will ultimately change our world. 

Quantum dots

Lessons from 122 years of Nobel Prizes in science

  • Surprising use cases – Nobel Prize winning research often develops into truly surprising practical applications
  • Shoulders of giants – Researchers build on the work of previous researchers to enhance understanding and gradually change the world
  • A long collaborative journey – It can take decades of work from a variety of players before many world-changing new applications appear
  • The exponential potential of networks – Networks have transformed our world since the Nobel Prize began, their future will be equally transformational, especially as we enter the quantum era
Please complete the form below.

The form is loading, please wait...