Fiber optic and digital camera pioneers honored

Three scientists have shared the Nobel prize for physics for two technological advances. And without their work you might not be reading this article or looking at pictures on this site.

This year’s prize has been jointly won by the men behind fiber optic cables and the digital camera. Half the $1.4 million prize grant will go to Chinese-born Professor Charles K Kao. While working for a telecommunications company in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, he challenged the theory that using light as a means of communication was inherently limited.

Kao’s work showed that the problem was merely that impurities in the glass fibers being used at the time was obstructing the light and limiting its transmission. He developed ways to make the glass clearer and thus capable of carrying light over longer distances without degradation. That made global fiber optic networks a viable prospect and, in turn, made the high-speed internet a practical option.

The rest of the prize grant is to be split between George E Smith of the United States and Canadian Willard Boyle (pictured, courtesy of Canadian Science & Technology Museum). They invented the charge-coupled device, a component which registers light inputs and converts it to an electrical signal. The device is arguably the key element of the digital camera, which transformed the affordability and practicality of photography. The device also has other scientific uses such as in space telescopes, or in medicine for fluoroscopy, a type of moving x-ray.

The award follows this year’s prize for medicine, which went to three US researchers who discovered how the body maintains the full set of 46 chromosomes each time a cell divides.

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