Nobel Prize in Physics Goes to "Masters of Light"

October 6, 2009

Digital cameras, YouTube, hi-speed Internet—just a few of countless modern marvels made possible by the three scientists who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics this morning in Stockholm.

The Nobel Prize went to three physicists who the Nobel Committee called "masters of light," because they found new ways of handling and capturing light.

(Also see: "Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded for Cracking DNA Puzzle" [2009].)

Willard Boyle and George E. Smith, researchers at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, will each receive a quarter of the ten-million-Swedish-kronor (1.4-million-U.S. dollar) 2009 Nobel Prize in physics.

Canada-born Boyle and Smith, a U.S. native, invented a sensor for capturing digital images called the charge coupled device or CCD.

The other half of the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics goes to China-born Charles Kao of Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in the United Kingdom, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Kao's discovery of imperfections in early fiber-optic cables made it possible to create the long fiber-optic cables that are the backbone of today's phone networks and the Internet.

"Ours is the age of information and images, and no two things better symbolize this than the Internet and digital cameras," said Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics in London, in a statement.

"These incredible inventors ... have been responsible for transforming the world in which we live," added Kirby-Harris, who was not on the Nobel Committee that selected the winners.

(Last year's winner: Nobel Prize for Physics Honors Subatomic Breakthroughs.")

Nobel Prize Winners Turned Light Into Signals

Boyle and Smith say they invented the CCD in a flash of insight on October 19, 1969, sketching out the basic design quickly during a brainstorming session.

A CCD uses semiconductors—the same kind of materials as computer chips—to capture light and turn it into an electric signal.

This phenomenon, called the photoelectric effect, was first theorized by Albert Einstein, earning him the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics.

"We are the ones, I guess, who started this whole profusion of little cameras all over the world," Boyle said in a live online video this morning—a technology his Nobel Prize-winning physics discoveries helped make possible.

"They were actually trying to invent a new kind of [electronic] memory," said Joseph Nordgren, chairman of the Nobel Committee for physics, also in a live online video this morning.

"But in doing that, they soon realized that they had an image sensor that worked perfectly well."

Charles Kao: Father of Modern Communications?

Since the 1930s, researchers had been using short optical fibers—solid, slender bits of glass that trap light inside, allowing it to be transmitted.

But the available fibers didn't work over long distances, Nordgren said. "After 20 meters [66 feet], most of the light was gone."

In research published in 1966, Kao discovered that, even though the glass being used for the fiber-optic cables seemed clear, it actually carried many impurities, which were disrupting the light transmission.

Kao's discoveries pushed companies to devise new ways of making ultrapure glass—eventually leading to today's fiber-optic cables, which can carry signals hundreds of miles with very little light loss.

"More than a billion kilometers of fibers around the world that connect us all, almost instantly," the Nobel Committee's Nordgren said.

"And this is due to the work by Kao, that inspired and started the evolution of optical communication that we have today."

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