Tech pioneers win 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics

A scientist who paved the way for fiber optics and a team of two researchers who designed the first digital-imaging sensor share the 2009 prize.

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded for "two revolutionary optical technologies."

Charles K. Kao, who discovered how to transmit light through fiber optics, and the team of Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, who designed the first digital-imaging sensor, split the Nobel Prize, announced by the Nobel Foundation on Tuesday.

Born in Shanghai, Charles K. Kao made a discovery in 1966 that would lead to today's fiber optics. A man ahead of this time, Kao calculated how it would be possible to transmit light over 100 kilometers (62 miles), compared to only 20 meters (65 feet) for the fiber cables available in the '60s. He discovered that by removing impurities and creating a more pure type of glass, the fiber could be made more efficient and absorb less of the light over great distances.

Kao's research stimulated other scientists to join the effort, leading to the first ultrapure fiber cable created in 1970.

Another breakthrough in technology was the invention of the first successful digital-imaging sensor, used today in everything from consumer cameras to surgical devices.

Working at Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1969, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith built the first CCD (Charge-Coupled Device). Using the photoelectric effect theorized by Albert Einstein, the sensor transforms light into electric signals. The team's major hurdle was determining how to gather and read out those signals into a large number of pixels in a short burst of time.

The first consumer camera with a CCD was designed in 1981, leading to a revolution in digital photography.

Willard S. Boyle, left, and George E. Smith of Bell Labs invented charged-coupled devices (CCDs). In this 1974 photo, they are demonstrating an experimental TV camera that contains a CCD substitute for the vacuum tube of a conventional TV camera.
Willard S. Boyle, left, and George E. Smith of Bell Labs invented charged-coupled devices (CCDs). In this 1974 photo, they are demonstrating an experimental TV camera that contains a CCD substitute for the vacuum tube of a conventional TV camera. Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs

"When combined with the laser and the transistor, the invention of an efficient, low-loss optical fiber has made nearly instantaneous communication possible across the entire globe," said H. Frederick Dylla, director of the American Institute of Physics. "This mode of communication is essential for high-speed internet and forms the optical backbone of 21st century commerce. The CCD sensor has revolutionized technical, professional, and consumer photography in the last few decades. Taken together these inventions may have had a greater impact on humanity than any others in the last half century."

Kao will take home one half of the award prize of 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.4 million) with the team of Boyle and Smith splitting the other half. Awarded by the The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Nobel prizes are given each year for achievements in science, literature, and economics.

About the author

Journalist, software trainer, and Web developer Lance Whitney writes columns and reviews for CNET, Computer Shopper, Microsoft TechNet, and other technology sites. His first book, "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time," was published by Wiley & Sons in November 2012.

 

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