Three scientists who mastered light through technology have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for physics, for breakthroughs that the prize committee said “helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies.” Half of the $1.4 million prize goes to Charles Kao (pictured), for his work on fiber optics, while the other half will be divided between Willard Boyle and George Smith, two retired researchers from Bell Labs who invented the first imaging technology using a digital sensor instead of film, paving the way for the creation of digital cameras.
Kao’s discovery in fiber optics set the stage for the technological revolution that underpins today’s global communication systems, powering broadband internet connections and carrying data transmissions around the world. In 1966, he figured out how to transmit light for more than 100 kilometers using optical glass fibers, five times the length of the most advanced fibers then available [Bloomberg]. Fiber optics have become ubiquitous in today’s wired, networked world; the Nobel committee noted that if all the optical cables in use today were unraveled, it would equal a single thread more than a billion kilometers long, enough to circle the globe 25,000 times.
The two researchers from Bell Labs invented the digital sensor known as a charge-coupled device (CCD). Their idea takes advantage of the photoelectric effect, which was discovered by Albert Einstein and won him the Nobel in 1921. When light hits a piece of silicon, it knocks out electrons. The brighter the light, the more electrons are knocked out. In a CCD, the knocked-out electrons are gathered in small wells, where they are counted — essentially one pixel of an image. The data from an array of CCDs can then be reconstructed as an image. A 10-megapixel camera contains 10 million CCDs [The New York Times].
The three new laureates all hold American citizenship, but the Shanghai-born Kao is also a British citizen, and Boyle is also a Canadian citizen.
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Image: Richard Epworth / Nobel Foundation