Van der Laan, Carra and Schütz-Gmeineder share the prize for their work on X-ray magnetic dichroism, a technique in which circularly polarized X-rays are used to study magnetic structures. By measuring the difference in the scattering of right- and left-hand-polarized radiation, it is possible to obtain information about the material that cannot be obtained with traditional X-ray diffraction measurements. The three prize-winners used X-rays from synchrotron radiation sources to study the properties of extremely thin layers of magnetic materials, such as those used in the latest generation of disk drives for computers.

The prize, previously known as the Hewlett Packard prize, was renamed when Hewlett Packard set up Agilent as a subsidiary company to run its test and measurement business. It is given "in recognition of scientific excellence in basic or applied research in the physics of solids and liquids, with particular emphasis on recent work that leads to advances in the fields of electronic, electrical and materials engineering."