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Americans share Nobel physics prize

Willard Boyle (left) and George Smith in 1970, with the charge-coupled device that earned them the Nobel Prize yesterday. Willard Boyle (left) and George Smith in 1970, with the charge-coupled device that earned them the Nobel Prize yesterday. (Associated Press/Alcatel-lucent, Bell Labs)
By Malcolm Ritter
Associated Press / October 7, 2009

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NEW YORK - The next time you snap a digital photo and post it to Facebook, you can probably thank the three men who won the Nobel Prize in physics yesterday.

They helped develop fiber-optic cable and invented the “eye’’ in digital cameras - technology that has given rise to film-free photography and high-speed Internet service, revolutionized communications and science, and transformed the way we live, work, and amuse ourselves.

Half the $1.4 million prize will go to Charles K. Kao, 75, for discovering how to transmit light signals long-distance through hair-thin glass fibers. That led to fiber-optic communication networks that zip voice, video, and high-speed Internet data worldwide in a split-second.

The other half will go to Willard S. Boyle, 85, and George E. Smith, 79, for opening the door to digital cameras by inventing a sensor that turns light into electrical signals.

These three Americans, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences declared, are “the masters of light’’ whose work “helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies.’’

“What the wheel did for transport, the optical fiber did for telecommunications,’’ said Richard Epworth, who worked with Kao at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in Harlow, England, in the 1960s.

Here’s one measure of the impact of Kao’s work: The academy said that if all the glass fiber that now carries phone calls and data were wrapped around the world, it would span the globe more than 25,000 times.

Here’s another measure: Just make a phone call across the Atlantic.

“It’s dirt-cheap. It used to be expensive,’’ said David Farber, former chief technologist at the US Federal Communications Commission.

Fiber optics “revolutionized everything. . . . It’s one of those technologies that, when it happened, it just took off like wildfire,’’ said Farber, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Kao concluded in 1966 that it would take fibers of highly purified glass to carry light over long distances. He recommended making them from a compound called fused silica. That material was hard to work with, but in 1970, researchers in the U.S. succeeded in making fibers.

Kao said yesterday that he never expected the Nobel despite all the advances that flowed from his research. A native of Shanghai, Kao has both American and British citizenship.

One popular use of optical fibers is sending digital photos, which were made possible by a 1969 invention by Boyle and Smith at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. It is called a charge-coupled device, or CCD, and it is at the heart of most digital cameras, turning light into electrical signals. The CCD captures those signals in a way that makes it possible to create the pixel-by-pixel images displayed on a screen.

CCD technology is also used in some devices that doctors use to peer inside patients.

And the CCD “has done as much to revolutionize the way astronomy is done as the telescope did,’’ said US Naval Observatory spokesman Geoff Chester. “It allows you to see deeper in the universe with the same equipment with a clarity that is unparalleled.

“Without a CCD there would not be anything like the Hubble Space Telescope and our current knowledge of the universe would be nowhere near what it is,’’ Chester said.

Boyle, who also holds Canadian citizenship, said he is reminded of his work with Smith “when I go around these days and see everybody using our little digital cameras, everywhere.’’

But he said the biggest achievement resulting from his work was the transmission of images from Mars, showing features such as its red desert, taken by digital cameras in space.

Smith and his wife, Janet Murphy, were asleep in their Waretown, N.J., home yesterday when the phone rang at 5:43 a.m. He couldn’t get out of bed to answer it in time, and the call went to voice mail.

“It was a message in a Swedish accent, so we knew something was up,’’ Murphy said.

Smith rushed to the website of the Nobel committee and saw that the announcement was to be made momentarily. The phone rang again shortly with the good news.

“It does do wonders for one’s ego,’’ Smith said. “People obviously like taking pictures. Look at all the cellphone cameras and cameras in your computer. That’s using this technology.’’

On Monday, three American scientists shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, an insight that has inspired new lines of research into cancer.

The three - Elizabeth H. Blackburn, who also has Australian citizenship; Carol W. Greider; and Jack W. Szostak - were cited for their work in solving the mystery of how chromosomes, the structures that carry DNA, protect themselves from degrading when cells divide.