Friday, 29 July 2011

Notable University Figures (2): Professor Walter E. Spear

In the second in our series looking at important figures in the University’s past we turn our attention to Walter Spear, one of the most distinguished physicists to have worked at the University of Dundee, and a man whose research made a major contribution to our everyday lives.

Born in Germany in 1921, Walter. E. Spear came to the UK just before the Second World War. After studying at the University of London he joined the University of Leicester, where he first met a student named Peter LeComber whose career would become intertwined with Spear’s own. In 1969 the two joined the staff of the University of Dundee where they would become famed for their research into the properties of amorphous silicon. The work of Spear and LeComber and their research team attracted much interest from companies and groups who saw that it had huge scientific and commercial potential. The research carried out in Dundee led to the creation of the amorphous film silicon transistor. This innovation directly led to LCD technology and the eventual development of solar panels and flat screen TVs. Spear’s work was recognised with a number of prestigious awards including the European Physical Society Europhysics prize (1976) and the Max Born Medal and Prize for Physics (1977).

Spear retired in 1988, and after the sudden death of Peter LeComber in 1992, effectively ended his active research career. Spear himself passed away at the age of 87 in 2008.

Walter Spear’s papers are held by Archive Services (UR-SF 57). They include articles written by Spear and notes for some of his talks and public lectures. The papers also include an unusual collection of letters sent to Spear some of which were sent by members of the public seeking support for their unorthodox scientific theories.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Planned obsolescence

Apple's decision earlier this week to ship a desktop computer without an optical drive prompted Alan to wonder on his personal blog whether this is a sign that CDs and DVDs are reaching the end of their useful life as media for digital information:

The launch of a [new] desktop Mac without an optical drive...put me in mind of the launch of the original iMac in the late 1990s and the paradigm shift in computing which that machine signaled. Back then, Apple were the first to identify that the floppy disk was obsolete; slow, unreliable and lacking the capacity needed for contemporary computing. The iMac was designed from the outset for networked environments and the internet. The rhetorical question Apple asked was 'why would you need a floppy drive if you have email?'.

[Now] in 2011 [we have] the strongest signal to date that optical media is becoming (in computing terms at least) moribund...Software and data are distributed via networks or the cloud and on those increasingly rare occasions where you have no network connection, portable flash storage is cheap and ubiquitous.

[The move away from optical media seems to mark a notable change in the storage and transfer of digital information and will have real implications for recordkeepers]. It's not that long ago that high-quality optical media was being recommended as a good 'vault' for digital information...Similarly, [we are] approaching a situation where we have to keep an optical drive around which can be plugged into a more modern machine to resurrect the only known copy of some important file, in the same way as we've had to keep floppy drives around for some years now...[Does] Apple's decision to ship a desktop computer without an optical drive point to impending obsolescence in the same way that the iMac's lack of a floppy drive did 13 years ago?

Chris Foresman, writing for Ars Technica, has answered that question, at least as far as Apple is concerned:

Apple has drawn the line in the sand: optical discs are out, and digital distribution is the future...

It is important to remember that Apple is only one company and lots of other manufacturers will continue to include optical drives with their PCs. However, Apple has in the past offered a strong indication of the direction of travel in technology and that is why their decision to move away from optical media is so interesting.