TOPICS > Science

‘Masters of Light’ Receive Nobel in Physics

BY Molly Finnegan  October 6, 2009 at 11:58 AM EST

Willard Boyle and George Smith, 1974, Courtesy Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs/Nobel Foundation

The three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics Tuesday all developed new ways of harnessing light for different technological applications that are now used all the time, every day, all over the world.

For instance, Web users can thank Nobel laureate George Kao for being able to read this story online, and the team of Willard Boyle and George Smith for being able to see digital photos of the winning scientists.

Kao, a dual British-American citizen, discovered in 1966 in a British lab how light could travel long distances in glass strands. Fiber optics had already been invented, but Kao figured out how to make the light travel through miles of glass without having the glass itself absorb the signal.

Using a more pure and transparent glass, he produced an optical fiber in 1970 that was a kilometer long, laying the groundwork for the infrastructure of our current telecommunication systems, including telephones and the Web.

Richard Epworth, one of his colleagues from the British lab, said Kao’s innovation did for telecommunications “what the wheel did for transport.” Phil Schewe, a spokesman for the American Institute of Physics called fiber optics “the backbone of our telecommunications world.”

According to the AP, Kao said he never expected the award despite the many changes that resulted from his research.

“Fiber-optics has changed the world of information so much in these last 40 years,” he said in a statement released by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he was formerly vice chancellor.

Americans George Smith and Willard Boyle, who is also a Canadian citizen, invented the sensor that turns light into the pixels of a digital image. Using a discovery that won Albert Einstein the Nobel prize in 1921, Smith and Willard applied the concepts of the photo electric effect in creating a charged-coupled device, or CCD, a sensor that holds and counts electrons that are affected by light exposure.

The CCD is described as the digital camera’s electronic eye. Put together, lots of CCDs can reproduce an image — for example, there are 10 million CCDs in a 10-megapixel camera.

“Digital photography has become an irreplaceable tool in many fields of research,” the Nobel committee said in a press release on the award. “The CCD has provided new possibilities to visualize the previously unseen.”

CCDs are used by a variety of different devices, including simple consumer digital cameras, medical imaging devices, and even the cameras that sent back images from Mars and the Hubble telescope.

Borje Johansson, a member of the Nobel Committee for Phyics, noted that it had revolutionized the way that information travelled around the world, with important news events being captured and transmitted more easily than before.

“I think it’s very important for people in general that whatever happens in a corner of the world the rest of the world can get this information because of these cameras everybody has,” he said, according to news agencies.

The prize money will be split two ways, with Kao receiving half and Smith and Willard sharing the other portion.