URBANA — Fifty years after demonstrating the first visible light-emitting diode, or LED, Nick Holonyak Jr. received a standing ovation from friends, colleagues and aspiring researchers at an event Tuesday celebrating his achievements.
Well-wishers lined up in the South Lounge of Illini Union to congratulate the longtime University of Illinois professor, ask advice and learn more about his research.
Fielding questions about everything from his research inspiration to whatever happened to his old gym shoes, Holoynak urged students to continue working hard, and he expressed no regrets about his life, except perhaps working too strenuously on the railroad in his teen years in southern Illinois, which he believes contributed to an arthritic back.
"I'm almost 84, but my mind still works. It's still bothered by the things we have to do. And if I've got something to do, you young people better get off your butts and do something," he said to much laughter.
Fifty years ago, Holonyak discovered a new alloy that would emit light in the red part of the visible spectrum, creating the first practical light-emitting diode. Today, LEDs are used throughout the world in a variety of applications, including flashlights, digital clocks, fiber-optic networks, spacecraft and more.
Holonyak said at the time he didn't think it would take 50 years for the science to reach its potential. He still believes LEDs eventually will replace all other forms of lighting around the world because they use less power.
On Tuesday, Holonyak, who holds the John Bardeen Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UI, spoke about the science behind the LED, the process that led him to develop it, why he decided to return to the university after working in private industry and he spoke of his mentor at the UI, John Bardeen.
Holonyak said he often asks people the question, "Who, next to (Abraham) Lincoln, affected history more than anyone else? I tell them John Bardeen."
Bardeen is the two-time Nobel Prize winner for his invention of the transistor and theory of superconductivity.
UI freshman Brett Benischek from Des Plaines happened upon Tuesday's celebration in the Illini Union and asked Holonyak what inspired him to work on LEDs.
Holonyak's answer "got me thinking of ways I could look to, to build on the works of others," Benischek said. Ideas don't come out of nowhere, but from work and from building on the research of others, he said.
"When I grow up, I want to be a scientist," said fourth-grader Trey Goodloe of Urbana. He took a break from the school day to attend the event with Greg Square. Goodloe arrived early to obtain Holonyak's autograph and a DVD copy of a Holonyak documentary called "A Brilliant Idea."
"I want to know how he made the LED light," said Goodloe, adding that he is interested in a career that would "mesh" his two interests of engineering and military aircraft.
"When you ask, What advice do you have for young people? Believe me, we've got nothing but problems left behind," Holonyak said. "And you could sure come up with better ideas. You young people, you can push further," he said.
As for the gym shoes he used (and kept together with wire and other material) for some 20 or 30 years, Holonyak, a former gymnast and longtime regular at the UI's Kenney Gym, said he years ago planned to toss them out. But colleagues managed to retrieve them and had them covered in bronze. They're now among the items in his lab on the engineering campus.