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Home » » 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Kao, Boyle and Smith

2009 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Kao, Boyle and Smith


Bell Labs researchers Willard Boyle (left) and George Smith (right) with the charge-coupled device. Photo taken in 1974. Photo credit: Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs.
"The [transfer of] information in society today is completely based on [this research]," said Joseph Nordgren , the chair of the Nobel Prize committee members in a press conference announcing the prize. "The practical implications for this research were enormous...It is something that has changed our life, not just in science but in society as whole." Kao In 1966, Charles K. Kao made a discovery that led to a breakthrough in fiber optics. He carefully calculated how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibers. 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. "It was the impurities, and other limiting factors such as scattering, atomic motion, that limited glass fibers in the 1960s," said Nordgren. Kao presented his research at the 1966 London meeting of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The first ultrapure fiber was successfully fabricated just four years later, in 1970 by the Corning company. "The Nobel Prize isn't awarded for lifetime achievement, it is given for diverse research, clearly Kao's work achieved a breakthrough that led to a whole new research and technology field," said Nordgren. These low-loss glass fibers facilitate global broadband communication such as the Internet. Boyle and Smith In 1969 Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor, a CCD (Charge-Coupled Device). The two researchers came up with the idea in just an hour of brainstorming according to Boyle who spoke during a press conference today. "It is amazing that a [the CCD device] was created so quickly," said Nordgren. "There is so many breakthroughs that came out of research at Bell labs...its unfortunate that during the 80s, US companies abandoned the idea of having an scientific environment such as Bell labs," said Nordgren. Boyle said that to him, the biggest achievement of his work was seeing images transmitted back from Mars. "It wouldn't have been possible without our invention," he said. The CCD technology makes use of the photoelectric effect, as theorized by Albert Einstein and for which he was awarded the 1921 year's Nobel Prize. By this effect, light is transformed into electric signals. The challenge, when designing an image sensor was to gather and read out the signals in a large number of image points, pixels, in a short time. The CCD is the digital camera's electronic eye. It revolutionized how images were collected from spacecraft, by telescopes, and in medical imaging, and has eventually replaced the film camera in every aspect of photography.
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