“The Father of Fiber Optics” Get Nobel

Source: ” ‘Masters of Light’ Get Nobel”, The Wall Street journal, 7 Oct 09

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.


Dr.Kao early lab testing of optical fiber (Source: DailyMail)

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.

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