On a rainy Saturday morning in January 2007, Henry Yang, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, took an urgent phone call. He excused himself abruptly from a meeting, grabbed his coat and umbrella, and rushed across the windswept U.C.S.B. campus to the Solid State Lighting and Display Center. The research group there included one of us (Nakamura), who had just received the Millennium Technology Prize for creating the first light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that emit bright blue light. Since that breakthrough over a decade earlier, Nakamura had continued his pioneering research on solid-state (semiconductor) lighting, developing green LEDs and the blue laser diodes that are now at the core of modern Blu-ray disc players.
As Yang reached the center about 10 minutes later, people were milling about a small test lab. "Shuji had just arrived and was standing there in his leather jacket asking questions," he recalled. Nakamura's colleagues Steven DenBaars and James C. Speck were speaking with a few graduate students and postdoctoral researchers as they took turns looking into a microscope. They parted for Yang, who peered into the eyepiece to witness a brilliant blue-violet flash emanating from a glassy chip of gallium nitride (GaN).