American trio shares Nobel Prize in physics

STOCKHOLM: Three scientists who created the technology behind digital photography and helped link the world through fibre-optic networks shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics today. Charles K Kao was cited for his breakthrough involving the transmission of light in fibre optics while Willard S Boyle and George E Smith were honoured for inventing an imaging semiconductor circuit known as the CCD sensor.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said all three have American citizenship. Kao also holds British citizenship while Boyle is also Canadian. The award’s $1.4 million purse will be split between the three with Kao taking half and Boyle and Smith each getting a fourth. The three also receive a diploma and an invitation to the prize ceremonies in Stockholm on Dec. 10. Kao, who was born in Shanghai and is a British citizen, was cited for his 1966 discovery that showed how to transmit light over long distances via fibre-optic cables, which became the backbone of modern communication networks that carry phone calls and high-speed Internet data around the world. “With a fibre of purest glass it would be possible to transmit light signals over 100 kilometres (62.14 miles), compared to only 20 meters (65.62 feet) for the fibres 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 high-speed, 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 revolutionised 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,” it said.