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Masters of Light: Americans Win the Nobel Prize in Physics

October 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown reports on three American scientists who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering research in fiber optics and digital photography.
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JEFFREY BROWN: For the second day in a row, a trio of Americans took the Nobel Prize. Today’s physics award went to three scientists for their work in harnessing the power of light. Willard Boyle, formerly of Bell Labs, got the news from Stockholm early this morning.

WILLIAM BOYLE, scientist: I guess we’ve, from time to time, said, well, I suppose sometime we might get a call. I doubt it. No, no, no, it’s too late. And so I said, “That’s one of those jokesters again that are going to phone us up and say you’ve won the Noble Prize or something like that.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Boyle will share half the prize with fellow scientist George Smith. In 1969, the pair invented the eye of the digital camera, a sensor that translates light into pixels. The technology is found in virtually every digital camera on the market and in the Hubble Space Telescope.

The prize’s other half goes to Charles Kao, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His work in transmitting light over long distances through fiber optic cables laid the groundwork for today’s high-speed data networks.

CHARLES KAO, scientist: The fiber optics have improved the communication that we, in such a short time, can have connections between one place of the Earth and the other side of the Earth in no time and in an enormous capacity.

JEFFREY BROWN: The three scientists will formally accept the $1.4 million prize in December.

And for more on these discoveries, we’re joined by Mariette DiChristina, acting editor-in-chief of Scientific American magazine.

Well, how about starting simply? The common theme here seems to be the mastery of light, right? Why is that important?

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA, Scientific American: Thanks for having me, Jeffrey. The mastery of light is important for this reason. It has been a completely transformative set of technology advancements for us today.

And one way for us to think of it, if you think about capturing light and then manipulating it, is in our own heads every day, we have this special light device called an eye, and it captures the images around us. Then we have something called an optic nerve, which is kind of like a highway for light that sends those images to us in the brain.

In the same way, the charge-coupled device that the two researchers from Bell Labs developed captures light on a stamp-size chip and send that light through fiber optic tubes that transmit the light like a little light highway.

Transmitting light

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so the fiber optics is the work of Charles Kao. Let's start with that. Explain the breakthrough that he made there and what that -- and then we'll get to what that's led to.

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: OK. So way back in the 1930s, medical doctors were already starting to use light pipes or fiber optics for imaging into the body in certain ways, but one particular problem that they had was that you couldn't transmit that light very far, and it was useful for one patient or another, but not for sending information over longer distances.

The work that Kao did and the essential innovation and insight that he had there is that, if you could somehow remove some of the more, quote, "the impurities" in that light fiber, that fiber optic, then you could send more information through that tube than you could ever do previously. And how he realized...

JEFFREY BROWN: So the -- oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead.

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: How he realized that was, even though at the time they had rather pure glass, he realized that, if you fused silica or quartz, you could get an even more pure glass pipe and therefore reflect light. You could think of it as if you were bouncing light down a highway made of mirrors.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the problem -- just to be clear -- the essential problem was that the transmission of light, the light would be dissipated in its travels through the glass...

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... so it wasn't traveling far enough to carry the information.

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: In Kao's day, you could only send, let's say, 1 percent of the light across a fiber optic tube of, say, 20 meters, which you can think of as about two school bus lengths in distance. And by that, you know, the light that you started with, you know, after it went just that short distance, 99 percent of it would be gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: The academy, I read today, they were comparing where we are today, and they said that, if they unraveled all of the fiber optics that we have today, it would now cover 600 million miles, so from his day until now, quite a difference.

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: You could circle the globe with those fibers 25,000 times. But what's neat about the light transmission that's done today is, in Kao's day, where he could only transmit, say, 1 percent of the light over that two bus lengths in distance, today we can transmit more than 95 percent of that light over a kilometer or half a mile.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does that mean? I mean, now -- now tell us how that translates to our daily lives.

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Right, so this is our information highway. Today, we have the luxury of living a 24/7 instant-on Internet access with beautiful pictures, which we'll talk about in just a minute, and all the information we want to at the touch of a button. In fact, when the Nobel Prize was announced this morning, all that information went around the world at the speed of light thanks to this invention.

Capturing light

JEFFREY BROWN: That's a nice touch, huh? OK, now the pictures, the eye you referred to earlier, that's the work of the other two scientists. Explain what their discovery was.

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: OK. The two scientists at Bell Labs also in the 1960s -- by the way, both of these innovations from the 1960s -- were trying to create a kind of memory device. Well, it didn't become known for memory, but what it could do is capture light in picture form in the way that was predicted by Einstein back in the '20s, a phenomenon called the photoelectric effect.

And all that is, is that you capture light and transfer it into electronic signals that we could then send through those little highways of light that you and I were just discussing a minute ago.

What's innovative about that is not only has it enabled us to send that light electronically, but it has enabled us to store enormous volumes of information, which we simply couldn't do with film cameras before this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the practical impact of that discovery, again, we see all around us.

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Right, huge practical impact here. One of the differences -- well, if you think about it, just even a decade ago, a lot of us were lugging around our film cameras and sending our film in and getting that chemically processed.

And now we'd have these lovely light digital cameras that pretty much everyone I know carries. And whether you're taking a picture of, you know, your grandmother, or updating your Facebook page, you're using these wonderful charge- coupled device technology that those Nobel researchers developed today.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the same technology for the Hubble telescope, for what doctors are doing with imaging?

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Right. Here's one of the cool things. Not just applied to our everyday lives, which is wonderful and a benefit to all of us, but these -- the ability to compress this information in digital form and send it around the world has also revolutionized science, as well.

You mentioned the Hubble Space Telescope, which is a relatively small telescope in the scheme of things, orbiting and able to capture wonderful images for us, and send it again at the speed of light into our image-processing down to the world here below. We're also able to see little tiny stones on the surface of Mars, thanks to this CCD imaging technology.

Two discoveries working in synch

JEFFREY BROWN: And to tie this back together again where you started -- it's interesting -- so the two discoveries worked together all the time, right? One helped us capture the image, and the other helps us transmit it all around the world?

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Right. Today, they work together all the time. And you also mentioned medical imaging technologies. We're able with CCD cameras to take high-resolution -- or let's call them very sharp and clear -- pictures and send them, whether they're medical images to other people or science images or, as I mentioned, pictures of your relatives and friends, so it's transformed not just science, but our everyday lives to have these.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me just ask you one more thing before I let you go. I mean, you watch these Nobel prizes all the time. Some years the physics prize goes to something that only other physicists could know and love, right? And then other years, it's like this, where it has applications in daily lives. Is there any pattern that you discern here?

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Right. Well, here's one of the wonderful things about basic science research. Now, of course, the Nobel prizes acknowledge science that has transformed research and our understanding of the world and maybe even, in our case, right, we were talking about the universe, because we're looking with the Hubble telescope at beautiful, profound images from the edge of the universe, at Mars next door.

And in the cases of the physics awards, I think one thing for us all to remember is that maybe today we don't know why those basic research advances are going to be so important to us in our lives, but, hey, how about 10 years, 20 years from now? These basic pieces that help us understand the world around us could then change us in applied ways some years down the line.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mariette DiChristina of Scientific American, thanks very much.

MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Thanks for having me.