Communication pioneers win 2009 physics Nobel

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A pioneer in fiber optics and two scientists who figured out how to turn light into electronic signals -- work that paved the way for the Internet age -- were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for physics on Tuesday.

Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born British-American, won half the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.4 million) prize for a discovery that led to a breakthrough in fiber optics, determining how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibers.

Willard Boyle, a Canadian-American, and George Smith of the United States shared the other half for inventing the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor.

“This year’s Nobel prize in physics is awarded for two scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies,” the award-winning committee said in a statement.

Their achievements have allowed vast amounts of information to be sent around the globe almost instantaneously, as trillions of signals make their way through tiny glass fibers now long enough to encircle the planet more than 25,000 times.

Boyle, raised over the phone to address a news conference at the Nobel committee in the Swedish capital, sounded dazed.

“I have not had my morning cup of coffee yet, so I am feeling a little bit not quite with it all. But I have this lovely feeling all over my body, like ‘Wow, this is really quite exciting, but is it real?’” he said.

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The Nobel prizes are given annually for achievements in chemistry, physics, medicine, peace, literature and economics. They were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the 1895 will of Swedish millionaire Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

Robert Kirby-Harris, head of Britain’s Institute of Physics, said nothing better symbolized the information age than the Internet and digital cameras.

“From kilobytes to gigabytes, and now to petabytes and exabytes, information has never been so free-flowing or ... so instantly visual,” he said.


Kao, born in 1933, made a breakthrough in 1966 as he learned how light could travel long distances reliably via glass fibers. Four years later, the first “ultrapure” fiber was produced.

“These low-loss glass fibers facilitate global broadband communication such as the Internet,” the committee said. “Text, music, images and video can be transferred around in the globe in a split second.”

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Kao said news of the award left him “absolutely speechless.”

“This is very, very unexpected,” he said in a statement issued by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he was vice-chancellor from 1987 to 1996 before retiring.

“Fiber optics has changed the world of information so much in these last 40 years. It certainly is due to the fiber optical networks that the news has traveled so fast.”

Slideshow ( 11 images )

A large proportion of the traffic over those networks is made up of digital images, which is where Boyle and Smith come in. In 1969, they invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor, a so-called charge-coupled device.

“It revolutionized photography, as light can be captured electronically instead of on film,” the committee said.

Martin Barstow, professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester in Britain, said the impact of the invention had been immense.

“From YouTube to the Hubble Space Telescope, these devices are now at the heart of our digital video and still cameras and underpin the extraordinary progress made in astronomy during the past 20-30 years,” he said.

The work by Boyle and Smith, both employed by U.S. group Bell Laboratories before retiring more than 20 years ago, led to progress in areas from microsurgery to space exploration.

“When the Mars probe was on the surface of Mars and (they) used a camera like ours -- that wouldn’t have been possible without our invention,” Boyle said.

The invention has had other repercussions, some considered less welcome by privacy-minded people.

“We are the ones who started this profusion of little, small cameras working all over the world,” Boyle added.

At Bell Labs from 1953 to 1979, Boyle led research in optical and satellite communications, digital and quantum electronics, computing and radio astronomy. Among his credits, he helped NASA choose a site for the Apollo landing on the moon.

Smith has led research aimed at creating lasers and other semiconductor devices and he now serves as an adviser to universities and Canadian government laboratories.

An avid sailor, Smith recently completed a long-term cruise around the globe, taking 17 years to achieve what one of his light signals could perform in a second.

Asked what he would do with the prize money, Smith from his home in New Jersey: “I’m 79 years old right now. And I don’t think my life is going to change much. I don’t even need a bigger boat.”

Additional reporting by Simon Johnson, Nicholas Vinocur and Adam Cox, Doina Chiacu and Maggie Fox in Washington, Kate Kelland in London; editing by Andrew Dobbie