The 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics has just been announced, and instead of rewarding some esoteric, hard-to-fathom theoretical physics work, it’s gone to pioneers in two fields close to tech-lovers hearts: Fibre-optics and digital photography.
Half the prize went to Charles Kao for work that led to long-distance fiber-optic communications. Born in Shanghai, he was educated in the U.K. and worked in one of the early companies that became the current Nortel. This is where he did research into the fiber-optic systems available at the time, which had been puzzling scientists and engineers by not nearing their theoretical efficiency, and remaining good only for short-distance signaling. Kao’s experiments proved the reason behind these inefficiencies was impurities in the glass making up the fibers–this effected the refractive index of the medium as well as how much light was wasted by scattering instead of being neatly piped down the fiber to the receiving electronics.
As a result of Kao’s work, confidence in fiber-optics as a communications medium was restored once it became possible to create ultra-long fibers with low impurities and imperfections. Why should you care about this? Because it’s huge bundles of fiber that form the backbone of the global telecommunications system that makes many things from your phone to your Net connection to your TV work. You can also now get “fiber to the door” systems (like Verizon’s FiOS) which deliver ultra-fast broadband and IPTV to your home. Apple and Intel’s new fast-dataline toy, LightPeak, uses essentially the same system. These devices all rely on discoveries made after Kao’s.
The other half of the prize was shared by Canadian Willard Boyle and American George Smith for their co-invention of the Charge-Coupled Device. This little optically-sensitive chip, with its neat shift-bit way of getting data from the individual light-sensitive pixels to the data pipe that connects the sensor to a computer, is basically the invention that made possible the whole field of digital photography. And that’s a revolutionary technology that doesn’t need any introduction.