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October 7, 2009

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Shanghai-born fiber-optic guru shares Nobel Prize for physics

THREE scientists who helped link the world through fiber-optic networks and created the technology behind digital photography shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics yesterday.

The Shanghai-born Charles K. Kao, 75, was cited for discovering how to transmit light signals over long distances through glass fibers as thin as a human hair. His 1966 breakthrough led to the creation of modern fiber-optic communication networks that carry voice, video and high-speed Internet data around the world.

"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. "Optical fiber enables you to transmit information with little energy over long distances and to transmit information at very high rates."

Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith were honored for inventing an imaging semiconductor circuit known as the CCD sensor.

All three have American citizenship. Kao also holds British citizenship while Boyle is also Canadian.

The award's 10 million kronor (US$1.4 million) purse will be split between the three with Kao taking half and Boyle and Smith each getting a quarter.

Kao was cited for his 1966 discovery of how to transmit light over long distances via fiber-optic cables, which became the backbone of modern communication networks.

"With a fiber of purest glass it would be possible to transmit light signals over 100 kilometers, compared to only 20 meters for the fibers available in the 1960s," the citation said.

Boyle and Smith worked together to invent the charged-coupled device, or CCD, the eye of the digital camera found in everything from the cheapest point-and-shoot to delicate surgical instruments.

In its citation, the Academy said that Boyle and Smith "invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor, a CCD."

It said that technology builds on Albert Einstein's discovery of the photoelectric effect, for which he was awarded the Nobel physics prize in 1921.

The two men, working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, designed an image sensor that could transform light into a large number of image points, or pixels, in a short time.

"It revolutionized photography, as light could now be captured electronically instead of on film," the Academy said. "Without the CCD, the development of digital cameras would have taken a slower course. Without CCD, we would not have seen the astonishing images of space taken by the Hubble space telescope, or the images of the red desert on our neighboring planet Mars."

Boyle said he is reminded of his work "when I ... see everybody using our little digital cameras, everywhere. Although they don't use exactly our CCD, it started it all." But he said the biggest achievement resulting from his work was the images of Mars being transmitted back to Earth.


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