LEADING LIGHTS: Three pioneers in optical technology will share the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. Among them is Charles Kao, who led the way to the development of practical fiber-optics networks. Image: ©iStockphoto/Henrik Jonsson
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The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics will be split among three researchers who laid the groundwork in the 1960s for today's digital-media and telecommunications infrastructure. The Nobel Foundation announced the prizewinners in a news conference this morning from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.
Half the prize will be awarded to Charles Kao, formerly of Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, England (now Nortel), and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kao was an early pioneer in the field of fiber optics, the transmission of information over flexible glass fibers.
He realized that by eliminating impurities in glass, the material would form an ideal medium for the propagation of high-frequency light. At the time of his early work, according to the Nobel committee, only 1 percent of light would survive passage through a 20-meter fiber, but in today's glass fibers 95 percent of transmitted light perseveres after a kilometer.
In a Webcast interview after the announcement, Joseph Nordgren, a physicist at Uppsala University in Sweden and chair of the 2009 Nobel committee for physics, said that Kao's innovation rested in identifying and eliminating the problems that prevented the transition of fiber optics from the theoretical to the practical. "To solve these problems, that was the key work of Kao," Nordgren said, adding that the researcher realized there were significant defects in glass even though the material was already thought to be quite clean. "The real show-stopper was impurities," Nordgren said.
The other half of the physics prize will be shared by two researchers from Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. While at Bell Labs, Willard Boyle and George Smith invented the charge-coupled device, or CCD, which takes the place of conventional film in many of today's digital cameras. Reached by telephone, Boyle, who wrote a Scientific American article in 1977, told the Nobel committee that he had "a lovely feeling all over" and had not expected the honor at this stage in his life.
The CCD revolutionized astronomy as well as personal electronics, allowing space-based observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope to beam down high-resolution images in digital form. Boyle said that a personal high point came when the technology he co-invented enabled Mars landers to transmit detailed imagery of the Red Planet back to Earth.
"Ours is the age of information and images and no two things better symbolize this than the Internet and digital cameras," Institute of Physics chief executive Robert Kirby-Harris said in a statement from the U.K.-based organization. "These incredible inventors who have been responsible for transforming the world in which we live very much deserve their prize."
According to the Nobel committee, Kao was born in China and now holds U.S. and U.K. citizenship, Boyle was born in Canada and holds Canadian–U.S. citizenship, and Smith is an American citizen born in the U.S. All three men are retired.
The full Nobel Prize in Physics, as for other disciplines, is worth 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.4 million U.S.). The prizes will be presented at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.
Last year's honor was shared by three physicists whose discoveries were much more obscure to the everyday consumer. Yoichiro Nambu of the University of Chicago, Makoto Kobayashi of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba, Japan, and Toshihide Maskawa of Kyoto Sangyo University and the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics at Kyoto University shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics for their theoretical work in particle physics.