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Masters of Light: Americans Win the Nobel Prize in Physics

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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    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."


    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.


    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.

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