- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Three Americans whose research in the 1960s 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, chairman of the academy’s physics committee. “The impact on science is enormous.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said all three have American citizenship. Mr. Boyle is also Canadian. Mr. 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.”

Mr. Boyle and Mr. Smith’s 1969 discovery at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., “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.

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

He told the Associated Press 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 somewhere 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.

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