URBANA — Nick Holonyak Jr. does not shy away from a challenge, especially in science.
So when chemists at General Electric criticized his approach to making lasers back in 1962, he responded directly and, in his mind, appropriately.
"They were telling me I was nuts in pretty foul language — New York language — and I was giving it back in language from the coal fields of southern Illinois," Holonyak remembered with a laugh last week.
Holonyak, now one of the University of Illinois' most recognized scientists, proved his critics wrong and found a new alloy that would emit light in the red part of the visible spectrum, creating the first practical light-emitting diode.
Fifty years later the incredible fruits of his discovery are everywhere — from laptop screens and digital clocks to medical instruments, Christmas tree bulbs and spacecraft. His work led to dimmer switches, the lasers that make CD and DVD players possible, and fiber-optic communication networks.
Holonyak, 83, who holds the John Bardeen Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics, will be honored by the campus Tuesday to mark the 50th anniversary of his invention of the first practical LED. A symposium on Oct. 24-25 at the I Hotel will bring together Nobel laureates to discuss his work.
Tuesday's celebration at the Illini Union, scheduled for 11 a.m., will include enough cake for 500 people, a separate cake with LED candles and a talk by Holonyak. The first 100 guests will receive a copy of a Holonyak documentary called "A Brilliant Idea."
"Our lives today are marked by everything he has contributed," said Professor Andreas Cangellaris, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "Sometimes people don't even have a clue that many of the great things that they are enjoying go back to Nick's thinking about how do you make wild things happen."
For Holonyak, that's what it's all about. Thinking. Ideas. Hard work.
Coincidentally, Tuesday is the day the Nobel Prize in Physics is to be announced. Holonyak won't be waiting by the phone. He's won just about every other science, technology or engineering prize there is. He'd just as soon be in the lab.
"I never think about that," he said of the Nobel. "The work stands on its own merits. It's either good, or bad or whatever. That's the honor right there.
"The work stays. Prizes come and go."
For many of his colleagues, though, Holonyak deserves the prize many times over.
"In our minds Nick is a Nobel laureate already," Cangellaris said.
Russ DuPuis, a noted engineering professor at Georgia Tech and one of Holonyak's former graduate students, started a Nobel campaign for his mentor last year. DuPuis and others argue that Holonyak should have won in 2000, when the Nobel committee recognized Herbert Kroemer and Zhores Alferov for their development of semiconductor "heterostructures" and Jack Kilby, another UI engineering alumnus, for his part in creating the integrated circuit.
DuPuis said the work on heterojunctions wouldn't exist without the alloys Holonyak developed while at GE, "the first semiconductor alloy in the universe," which many had predicted to be impossible.
"If you don't have what he gave us, everything falls apart. It doesn't work," said DuPuis, who later developed an electronically controlled method for growing the crystals used in LEDs today.
Holonyak's discovery drew on the work of his mentor, Bardeen, a two-time Nobel Prize winner for his invention of the transistor and, later, his theory of superconductivity. Holonyak was Bardeen's first graduate student at the UI.
Scientists had realized that the semiconductors used in transistors emitted light but it was spectrally "smeary," as Holonyak put it, not the sharp light needed for a laser. Holonyak and others set about trying to solve that.
A GE chemist named Bob Hall was the first to create an infrared laser using a binary crystal of gallium and arsenic. But Holonyak combined them with phosphorous to produce light in the visible spectrum — a laser the eye could see.
Chemists had argued that Holonyak's alloy would be "lumpy and turgid and full of defects. That's where people were wrong and I was right," he said.
Holonyak calls the LED the "ultimate lamp." The electrical current itself generates light, rather than heating a filament, making it fast, efficient and affordable.
He thought it would take 10 years or so to reach its technological potential; it took 40 or 50. But its uses are potentially endless, Holonyak said, predicting it will eventually replace all other forms of lighting.
"In principle, it does the job perfectly," he said.
Still, Holonyak these days is more interested in talking about his latest work with UI Professor Milton Feng on a high-speed transistor laser, which they invented in 2003.
Transistors turn electrical current on and off, and LEDs are optical switches that turn lights on and off. A transistor laser can do both, bringing optics and electronics together. Currently, that requires intermediary devices that slow down processing. The technology could lead to an all-optic smartphone with tremendously improved speed and bandwidth, or a chip that would be a better supercomputer than the current Blue Waters facility on campus, scientists said.
No one's made it work yet, but "we're on the right path," Holonyak said.
Feng first met Holonyak when he transferred to the university as a graduate student in 1974. They continue to work on research that Feng said could revolutionize the electronics and power industry by finding a solution to reducing the amount of heat generated when huge amounts of data are transferred.
Holonyak complains of arthritis and back pain, a remnant of the years he spent working the railroad as a young teen. But he hasn't lost anything in the lab, colleagues said.
"Everything he thinks about, in every discussion you engage him, he always pushes himself to think out of the box," Cangellaris said. "When you think of an innovator, the very creative people, for them coming up with new ideas is a way of life. I think he personifies that in a way that I have not seen in anybody around me in my entire life."
Not long after arriving on campus last fall, Chancellor Phyllis Wise went to visit Holonyak in his lab.
"He was so disarming and such a totally modest person. It was really wonderful to be able to meet someone who had such huge impact and realize he was a modest human being," said Wise.
He symbolizes the kind of faculty the campus wants to recruit and retain, someone always thinking about ideas before other people even realize they are important, she said.
Wise said she believed it was Bardeen who showed him the importance of "that magical combination" of both teaching students and conducting research.
As a professor, Holonyak was "always in the lab," available to his students, demanding but also determined to spur them on to greater things, DuPuis said. The old wooden floors and leaky windows weren't the best conditions, but the lab produced world-changing work.
"We made our own furnaces, we would make all sorts of strange apparatus ourselves," DuPuis said. "He showed us by example what it takes to succeed. When you have an idea and you want to accomplish it and you don't have a million dollars to spend, you do what you can."
Stories about Holonyak abound on campus. The iconic bow ties he adopted from a colleague so they wouldn't get in the way of his lab work. His habit of finishing workouts at Kenney Gym by walking on his hands across the floor. His tireless campaign to get the university to do more to honor Bardeen, whom he calls a "hero."
He is fiercely loyal to the UI, calling it a "portal to the world" that took an immigrant coal-miner's son from southern Illinois and made him a world-renowned scientist.
He was born in Franklin County but then grew up in Glen Carbon and attended Edwardsville High School, working on the Illinois Central railroad when he was just 15 to save enough money to go to the UI. His parents were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants, eastern Slavs related to Ukrainians and Russians, and his father, Nicholas Sr., wanted him to work above ground and get an education.
At the UI, Holonyak lived in the parade ground units with the GIs home from World War II. A professor wanted him to be a chemist but he preferred electronics. He worked in a group studying the microwave tubes used in radar until he moved to Bardeen's lab.
After earning his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. at the UI, Holonyak worked at Bell Labs and in an Army signal intelligence unit in Japan, just after the Korean War, before becoming a consulting scientist at GE. In 1963, Bardeen recruited him back to the UI, and he never left. He and his wife, Katherine, have lived here for 49 years.
Wise said organizing Tuesday's celebration and the symposium later this month was a way to recognize the impact of both LEDs and Holonyak himself — the research and technology that his work has led to as well as the university's commitment to becoming an LED campus. The symposium will feature a who's who of LED researchers from academia and private industry around the world, including Alferov, Feng said.
Feng called Holonyak an "international figure" in the industry and "one of the giants." Yet "he's a pretty humble guy" and doesn't particularly like media attention. At his core, Holonyak is a scholar, Feng said.
"He wants to work in the lab. He comes to work to make the world better."
Major awards/honors for Professor Nick Holonyak Jr.:
Lemelson-MIT Prize, 2004
Global Energy Prize from Russia, 2003
U.S. National Medal of Technology, 2003
Japan Prize, 1995
Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Medal of Honor, 2003
U.S. National Medal of Science
National Academy of Sciences Award for the Industrial Application of Science
Engineering and Science Hall of Fame, member
National Inventors Hall of Fame, member
National Academy of Engineering, member
National Academy of Sciences, member
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fellow
American Physical Society, fellow
Optical Society of America, fellow
Russian Academy of Sciences, fellow