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Read the complete transcript of this episode, which aired on April 27th, 2004.

Episode 7: Light Speed

Up-to-the-second news is available at our fingertips 24 hours a day, either via television or on the World Wide Web. It's not unusual for any one person to have at least three telephone numbers -- one of which is most likely mobile -- and two e-mail addresses. Today, we can send messages instantly to just about anyone, anywhere on the globe. "Light Speed" tells the story of fiber optics -- the intricate system of glass and light that carries enormous amounts of information around the globe -- and traces the history of communications from telegraph to telephone to the discovery of lasers used in today's high-tech systems.

For most of human history, long distance communication posed many challenges. Mass communication required some very creative thinking.
For most of human history, long distance communication posed many challenges. Mass communication required some very creative thinking. In ancient times, when the city of Troy fell, Greeks learned the news from a system of fire beacons on adjacent islands that carried a prearranged signal nearly 400 miles. In the 18th century, a French visionary named Claude Chappe built a series of towers, each adorned with giant arms that could be clearly seen with a telescope from adjacent towers. These arms would be positioned differently to represent the various letters of the alphabet, and in this fashion, messages could be passed from tower to tower and across the whole of France.

How did we get from these clever but primitive forms of long-distance information transmission to our current, fully wired world? Colorful, expert commentary from respected communicators Ira Flatow and Tom Standage is interspersed with stories about such events as the early attempts to lay cables spanning the length of the Atlantic, and Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the "photophone," an ingenious but premature system of sending messages on light beams.

"Light Speed" not only tells about the past and present of communications, but also looks forward to the exciting future. We'll learn how renowned physicians like Dr. Mehran Anvari, a top laparoscopic surgeon, are using fiber optics to save and improve lives around the world using telerobotic surgery. The program looks on as Anvari actually operates on a patient in rural Canada from hundreds of miles away, thanks to the marriage of fiber optics and robotics.

Producer/Director: Jon Palfreman

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