Communication pioneers win 2009 physics�Nobel

Fibre-optic and CCD pioneers honoured with joint Nobel Prize for physics

Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born British-American and Fellow of the IET, won half the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.4 million) prize for a discovery that led to a breakthrough in fibre-optics, determining how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibres.

Kao, born in 1933, made his breakthrough when working at STL in Harlow, Essex in 1966. The electro-optics group that he had been appointed to head in 1963 had carried out a thorough study of loss mechanisms in optical materials, devising measuring techniques and carrying out extensive modelling experiments using microwaves.

Kao described the team’s work in 1989 when he spoke to IEE Review, the magazine of the IET’s predecessor organisation the Institution of Electrical Engineers. He had been awarded the IEE Faraday Medal that year for his achievements.

“With hindsight we covered a lot of ground, and by 1965 we had a good set of data, and the beginnings of a real understanding of attenuation mechanisms,” he recalled.

The extent of this understanding was revealed by the publication in the Proceedings of the IEE in 1966 of a landmark paper, ‘Dielectric fibre surface waveguides for optical frequencies’, co-authored with colleague George Hockham.

The paper was essentially a declaration of feasibility for optical transmission by glass fibre, which showed that silica glass had the potential to meet the attenuation requirements of telephony. It also set out the basic design criteria of a narrow core surrounded by a cladding material of lower refractive index.

Its appearance had an enormous influence on the development of optical fibre, especially in the UK, where it was directly responsible for the establishment of research projects. In 1970, Kao and Hockham’s predictions were confirmed when Corning Glass announced, at a meeting at the IEE in London, production of the first 20dB/km glass fibre.

"These low-loss glass fibres facilitate global broadband communication such as the Internet," the Nobel Prize committee said. "Text, music, images and video can be transferred around in the globe in a split second."

Kao said news of the award left him "absolutely speechless".

"This is very, very unexpected," he said in a statement issued by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he was vice-chancellor from 1987 to 1996 before retiring.

"Fibre optics has changed the world of information so much in these last 40 years. It certainly is due to the fibre-optical networks that the news has travelled so fast."

Willard Boyle, a Canadian-American, and George Smith of the United States, shared the other half of the prize for inventing the CCD.

"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," the award committee said in a statement.

Boyle, speaking by phone to a news conference at the Nobel committee in the Swedish capital, said: "I have not had my morning cup of coffee yet, so I am feeling a little bit not quite with it all. But I have this lovely feeling all over my body, like 'Wow, this is really quite exciting, but is it real?'"

Robert Kirby-Harris, head of Britain's Institute of Physics, said nothing better symbolised the information age than the Internet and digital cameras.

"From kilobytes to gigabytes, and now to petabytes and exabytes, information has never been so free-flowing or ... so instantly visual," he said.

Boyle and Smith invented the CCD in 1969.

"It revolutionised photography, as light can be captured electronically instead of on film," the committee said.

Martin Barstow, professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester in Britain, said the impact of the invention had been immense.

"From YouTube to the Hubble Space Telescope, these devices are now at the heart of our digital video and still cameras and underpin the extraordinary progress made in astronomy during the past 20-30 years," he said.

The work by Boyle and Smith, both employed by Bell Laboratories before retiring more than 20 years ago, led to progress in areas from microsurgery to space exploration.

"When the Mars probe was on the surface of Mars and (they) used a camera like ours -- that wouldn't have been possible without our invention," Boyle said.

Further information:

Interview with Charles Kao from IEE Review, May 1989

Fortieth anniversary of the CCD, E&T feature 2009

IEE Proceedings paper, 1966

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