Three Americans share Nobel physics prize

October 6, 2009 10:08:36 AM PDT
Three Americans whose 1960s research laid the foundation for today's world of computerized images and lightning-fast communication shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for their work developing fiber-optic cable and the sensor at the heart of digital cameras. Charles K. Kao, 75, was cited for discovering how to transmit light signals over long distances through glass fibers as thin as a human hair. His 1966 breakthrough led to the creation of modern fiber-optic communication networks that carry voice, video and high-speed Internet data around the world.

"What the wheel did for transport, the optical fiber did for telecommunications," said Richard Epworth, who worked with Kao at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in Harlow, England in the 1960s. "Optical fiber enables you to transmit information with little energy over long distances and to transmit information at very high rates."

Kao solved the problem of transmitting through miles of glass without having the glass itself absorb the signal. Corning Glass Works built on his ideas to create the first fibers that could be used for large-scale long-distance communications, making today's Internet possible.

Kao said he never expected the award despite the vast changes that resulted from his research.

"Fiber-optics has changed the world of information so much in these last 40 years," he said in a statement released by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he was formerly vice chancellor.

Willard S. Boyle, 85, and George E. Smith, 79, were honored for inventing the eye of the digital camera, a sensor able to transform light into a large number of pixels, the tiny points of color that are the building blocks of every digital image.

Their charge-coupled device, or CCD, is found today in devices ranging from the cheapest point-and-shoot digital camera to robotic medical instruments equipped with video cameras that let surgeons perform delicate operations deep inside the human body. It also revolutionized astronomy by letting spacecraft equipped with digital cameras take images from previously unseen regions of outer space and transmit them back to earth.

The work of the three men is "something that has really changed our lives," said Joseph Nordgren, chair of the academy's physics committee. "The impact on science is enormous."

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said all three have American citizenship. Boyle is also Canadian. Kao was born in Shanghai and is also a British citizen.

Phil Schewe, a physicist and spokesman for the American Institute of Physics called optical fibers "the backbone of our telecommunications world."

Boyle and Smith's 1969 discovery at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey "revolutionized photography, as light could now be captured electronically instead of on film," the Academy said. It described the technology as having built on Albert Einstein's discovery of the photoelectric effect, for which he was awarded the Nobel physics prize in 1921.

Boyle, in a phone call to the academy, said he is reminded of his work with Smith "when I go around these days and see everybody using our little digital cameras, everywhere."

He told The AP that the CCD did for light what the transistor did for sound.

"In other words, the CCD made it possible to store an optical image and transmit it and use it some where else."

But he said the biggest achievement resulting from his work was the transmission of images of features of Mars like its red desert taken by digital cameras in space.

The CCD "has done as much to revolutionize the way astronomy is done as the telescope did," said U.S. Naval Observatory spokesman Geoff Chester, a regular sky-gazer. "It allows you to see deeper in the universe with the same equipment with a clarity that is unparalleled.

"Without a CCD there would not be anything like the Hubble Space Telescope, and our current knowledge of the universe would be nowhere near what it is," Chester said.

The Hubble has six CCDs aboard. Earlier plans for a space telescope decades ago involved astronauts regularly heading to space to switch out film, until CCDs came out, said Hubble Space Telescope Institute spokesman Ray Villard.

Smith and his wife, Janet Murphy, were asleep in their Waretown, New Jersey home when the phone rang at 5:43 a.m. He couldn't get out of bed to answer it in time, and the call went to voice mail.

"It was a message in a Swedish accent, so we knew something was up," Murphy said.

Smith rushed to the Web site of the Nobel committee and saw that the announcement was to be made momentarily. The phone rang again shortly with the good news.

"It does do wonders for one's ego," Smith said. "People obviously like taking pictures. Look at all the cell-phone cameras and cameras in your computer. That's using this technology."

Borje Johansson, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said the three men's work was evident in numerous, and often overlooked, ways.

"When you Google -- if you Google -- you can be somewhere in the U.S. finding information and you don't notice" that the results are being scoured from worldwide sources. "You think you have it right in your pockets."

He said the work on the CCD had opened up events worldwide to an immediate audience, too, because of the proliferation of digital cameras.

"I think it's very important for people in general that whatever happens in a corner of the world the rest of the world can get this information because of these cameras everybody has," he said, but noted there was a downside because "you have all this pornography and everything."

The award's 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) purse will be split between the three, with Kao taking half and Boyle and Smith each getting a quarter.

On Monday, three American scientists shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, an insight that has inspired new lines of research into cancer.

Elizabeth H. Blackburn, who also has Australian citizenship, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak were cited for their work in solving the mystery of how chromosomes, the rod-like structures that carry DNA, protect themselves from degrading when cells divide.

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