The Masters of Light

STOCKHOLM — Three physicists, two of them American, won the 2009 Nobel Prize on Tuesday for work on fibre optics and light sensing that helped unleash the Information Technology revolution.

Charles Kao, Willard Boyle and George Smith were hailed by the Nobel jury as “the masters of light” for transforming communications from copper-wire telephony and postal mail to the era of the Internet, email and instant messaging.

“This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded for two scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies.

“They have created many practical innovations for everyday life and provided new tools for scientific exploration,” it said.

One of them is the fibre-optic cable, which enables transmission of data at the speed of light, and the other is the digital sensor that is the digital camera’s “electronic eye,” the Nobel jury said.

Kao, who has British and US nationality but has been based in Hong Kong, was awarded half of the prize for groundbreaking achievements in the use of glass fibres for optical communication.

“If we were to unravel all of the glass fibres that wind around the globe, we would get a single thread over one billion kilometres (600 million miles) long — which is enough to encircle the globe more than 25,000 times — and is increasing by thousands of kilometres (miles) every hour,” the jury said.

The 1966 discovery by Kao, now 75 and retired, means that “text, music, images and video can be transferred around the globe in a split second,” it added.

Boyle, a Canadian-US citizen, and Smith, a 79-year-old American, shared the other half of the prize for inventing an imaging semiconductor circuit — the charge-coupled device (CCD) sensor, which is the “electronic eye” of the digital camera.

The CCD, which converts light into electrical signals was invented in 1969, inspired by the photo-electric theory that earned Albert Einstein the 1921 Nobel.

“It revolutionised photography, as light could be now captured electronically instead of on film,” the committee said.

CCD technology is also used in many medical applications, such as imaging the inside of the human body, both for diagnostics and for microsurgery.

Most digital cameras today use the more efficient CMOS sensor, though the CCD sensor is still used for advanced photography.

Boyle, 85, told reporters in Stockholm by video link that he was in disbelief over winning the prize.

“Wow, this is really quite exciting, but is this real?”

“I haven’t had my morning cup of coffee yet, so I’m feeling a little bit not quite with it all,” he said.

He said he was proud to see the everyday applications of his work in the huge commercial success of digital cameras and pioneering pictures taken by scoutcraft to Mars.

“I see myself all the time these days when I go around and I see everybody using their little digital cameras everywhere … So we are the ones, I guess, that started this profusion of little small cameras working all over the world,” he said.

“I guess the most important part of our invention, which affected me personally, was when the Mars probe was on the surface of Mars and it used a camera like ours … and we saw for the first time the surface of Mars … And it would not have been possible without our invention.”

On Monday, Australian-American scientist Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider and Jack Szostak of the United States won the Nobel Medicine Prize for identifying a key molecular switch in cellular ageing.

The Chemistry Prize laureates will be named on Wednesday, followed by the Literature Prize on Thursday and the Peace Prize on Friday. The Economics Prize will wrap up the awards on Monday, October 12.

The Nobel prizes, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, were first awarded in 1901.

Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died childless in 1896, dedicating his vast fortune to create “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

Laureates receive a gold medal, a diploma and 1.42 million dollars which can be split between up to three winners per prize.

The formal awarding of the prizes will take place at gala ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10.

Source: ‘Masters of light’ win Nobel Physics Prize by Pia Ohlin (AFP)

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