Technical Papers

Remembering Dr. Simon Sze (施敏院士): A Seminal Figure in Semiconductor Technology, Mentor, and Visionary

On November 10, 2023

To Miss and Send Our Highest Respects to Dr. Simon Sze (施敏院士) – A Pioneer and Teacher on Semiconductor Technologies for Participants of the Worldwide Semiconductor Industry in the Last 60 Years and in the future.

A mentor in our semiconductor industry passed away on November 6th, 2023, and left tremendously valuable assets for us who can carry his legacy forward, including his research results and the best professional book, to continue making discoveries in the semiconductor technology realm.

In 1967, he and Dr. Kahng worked at Bell Laboratories and created the world’s first non-volatile semiconductor transistor, which has significantly influenced today’s non-volatile NOR and NAND flash memory industry, contributing to unexpected applications across various electronic devices such as solid-state storage systems used in cameras, cell phones, and cloud servers, nurturing AI and many smart systems.

Around the same time, he published his first technical book entitled “Physics of Semiconductor Devices,” which not only compiled the most up-to-date research results and profound insights into new solid-state devices but also meticulously organized his innovative ideas, systematically passing on the knowledge developed during the early stages of semiconductor devices when most electronic industries were still using vacuum tubes to manufacture radios, TVs, and telephones. Since then, he consistently updated this book, making it the go-to textbook and reference book for most participants in the semiconductor device industry.

In 1975, he took a leave from Bell Labs and served as a Distinguished Chair Professor at National Taiwan University, teaching a graduate course on Semiconductors. I was a senior undergraduate student fortunate enough to attend his course. He imparted not only knowledge about devices but also shared his thought processes and broad views on how to choose the right research topics in both science and engineering. He was not only humorous but also farsighted in understanding devices, technologies, and human attitudes, resembling a philosopher. For instance, he advised, “Don’t focus solely on fame and wealth, even though I know that most of you are top students eager to build successful careers. Work smartly and effectively to satisfy yourselves.” I distinctly remember his humorous teachings on 富 (wealth) and 貴 (honor): “You are rich whenever you need to spend, and there is money for you to use; you are honored when you need to accomplish something, but you don’t need to beg others.” He told us that as we pursued our graduate studies and careers, the integrated circuits (IC) industry would prosper and eventually replace vacuum tubes. Although in 1975, most of our formal courses in electrical engineering focused only on vacuum tubes and discrete semiconductor devices like diodes and transistors, he had the foresight to see the growth of ICs. Another interesting prediction from his statistical analysis was that “Most new civilizations will produce geniuses or prominent talents for about 250 years, such as classical music, Chinese poetry, the European Renaissance, and the first Industrial Revolution, etc. So, I believe that integrated circuits are creating a new civilization for mankind, which should last over 200 years (from 1960 to 2160?).”

In 2010, my company established an Etron Chair Professorship at National Chiao-Tung University, and Professor Sze was elected as an Endowed Chair by his fellow professors. At the ceremony, Professor Sze said, “Nicky, I’m glad that you have done so much for the integrated circuits industry, and you can do more in the future. Now, I’ll return you a gift that I’ve kept for 35 years.” He gave me the final exam paper from his course. I cannot express enough the kind of teacher Professor Sze was and why he was able to write his many outstanding books, as well as engage in many more interesting and thought-provoking activities.

I called him near the end of October from Taipei, and he was in the Bay Area. He said, “I have experienced a wonderful life and am very satisfied, even though I may not be able to meet you at the IEDM anymore. No regrets, and I am happy.” His voice was clear, and his thought process was just as I had experienced with him since 1975—still humorous and so wise that I can now share his story near the end of his life. His living intelligence is so vividly remembered by all of you as his friends, all semiconductor colleagues, and all his students. We are fortunate to have known Simon or read his papers and books. Let us remember that in our industry, we once had such a role model to learn from, to miss, and to pass on to those newly joining our industry and society, which has benefited from his inventions and teachings.

Nicky Lu, a dedicated engineer in the semiconductor and integrated circuits field, and a student of Professor Simon Sze for over 48 years, wrote this on November 10, 2023.