Sunday, October 11, 2009

'Masters of Light' Get Nobel

'Masters of Light' Get Nobel
Physicists Honored for Breakthroughs That Play Key Roles in Internet, Digital Cameras

Three scientists who harnessed the power of light in ways that helped turn the Internet into a global phenomenon and launched the digital-camera revolution were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday.

Charles Kao, who received half the total prize money of $1.4 million, was lauded for a breakthrough that led to fiber-optic cables, the thin glass threads that carry a vast chunk of the world's phone and data traffic and make up the circulatory system of the Internet.

The other half of the prize was shared by Willard Boyle and George Smith for work that led to the charge-coupled device, the "electronic eye" of a digital camera that turns light into electrical signals. The device, which eliminates the need for capturing images on film, paved the way for both today's point-and-shoot digital cameras and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Nobel committee described the three physicists as "masters of light."

Optical fibers, developed in the 1950s, had great theoretical potential because light can carry a lot more data than microwaves or radio waves. But impurities in the glass fibers of the time absorbed much of the light.

In 1966, Dr. Kao, while working at Standard Telephones and Cables' laboratory in Harlow, England, tackled the problem.

"His insight was that if you could get rid of the impurities, you could transmit light over many kilometers," said Jeff Hecht, who wrote a history of fiber optics in 1999.

Dr. Kao, who was born in Shanghai and has both U.K. and U.S. citizenships, figured out a way to increase the distance information could be sent to about 60 miles. Manufacturing breakthroughs then opened the way for moving signals over far greater distances, and the first ultrapure fiber was made in 1970.

Industry experts were skeptical. But, eventually, they were won over by Dr. Kao's vision of how fiber optics could substantially alter communication.

Today, fiber-optic cables transport words, sound and images from one end of the planet to the other in a split second. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel prizes, estimates that if all the glass fibers around the world were unraveled they would stretch to more than 600 million miles.

Work by Drs. Boyle and Smith at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., transformed photography. The CCD technology they pioneered is now used in digital cameras, camcorders, high-definition TV, satellites and medical endoscopes. The Hubble Space Telescope uses a CCD as its main imaging device.

In 1969, Drs. Boyle and Smith were trying to come up with new memory-chip ideas for data storage. Dr. Boyle was working on a device called PicturePhone. He was struggling to improve the screen image via clunky electronic tubes.

The pair met one day, stood at a blackboard in Dr. Boyle's office and tossed ideas about. Within an hour, they had their answer -- an image sensor that could gather and read out the signals in a large number of pixels, or image points, very quickly. They sketched out the design of a CCD, and within a week they had built a prototype.

In an interview from his home in Barnegat, N.J., Dr. Smith recalled: "There was no rule book, we just did what we thought was interesting and might prove fruitful. You can't write a book on how to do that."

Drs. Smith, 79 years old, and Boyle, 85, are American; Dr. Boyle also holds Canadian citizenship.

At International Business Machines Corp., scientists want to build on the work of Dr. Kao, 75. Optical fibers form the basis of virtually all long-distance communications, and IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer uses the same technology. Because it is cheaper and more efficient to send signals via glass fibers than electrical wires, IBM now aims to put fiber optics inside everyday computers.

Write to Gautam Naik at

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A3

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