2014 Millennium Technology Prize
Throughout his career and research journey, Professor Stuart Parkin has collaborated with countless brilliant minds. When asked about his most memorable collaborations, the first name that popped into his mind is Professor Claudia Felser, his wife. “We share a fascination for new materials and have been collaborating very closely on a number of papers,” Prof Parkin says.
The relevance of Prof Parkin’s work to our daily lives is intriguing. He revolutionised the Internet with his application of spintronics to data storage disk drives, enabling a thousand-fold increase in the storage capacity of disk drives. This contribution, for which Prof Parkin received the 2014 Millennium Technology Prize, underpinned the evolution of large data centres and cloud services, social networks, and online music and film distribution—all of which we use on a day-to-day basis now.
Looking back on his journey, Prof Parkin says he is continuously amazed by the degree of technological advancements that humanity has achieved. “I remember the first computing systems when I joined IBM as a postdoctoral researcher in the 1990s,” he says. “Chunky, with screens half a metre deep, and so heavy that no one could lift them. But looking at the paper-thin screens and hyper-realistic visuals that we have now, that’s just surreal.”
Emphasising that science and technological advancements are largely unpredictable, Prof Parkin says that despite the challenges, this is precisely why progress happens. After all, the most boring thing a scientist can do, is to follow a known path from point A to point B, he believes. “You really want to follow a path where there is no path. Then you have to create a path, and that’s super exciting and interesting.”
A strong believer of pushing boundaries and attempting the impossible, Prof Parkin has been working on racetrack memory, an entirely novel concept that he created, since 2002. What started as a radical idea that others were skeptical of has turned into an anticipated breakthrough after Prof Parkin proved its fundamental principle in a scientific paper published in 2008. If developed and scaled successfully, racetrack memory would enable a much larger storage capacity in disk drives.
Prof Parkin encourages aspiring scientists who want to work at the cutting-edge of science to seek out collaborators who share the same belief. Drawing from personal experience, he explains that it makes for an inspiring and purposeful journey, when one gets to work with collaborators who think differently and who have insights that nobody else has. “It can be a frustrating process, because when you’re pushing for new knowledge and inventions, people often don’t believe that what you’re doing is possible. That’s normal, and you just have to keep going,” he advises.
Prof Parkin is now based in Germany as Director at Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics and Professor at the Institute of Physics at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. In 2021, he received the King Faisal Prize for Science for his groundbreaking contributions to the field of spintronics.