This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for two scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies. They have created many practical innovations for everyday life and provided new tools for scientific exploration.
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 with optical glass fibers. With a fiber of the 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. Kao’s enthusiasm inspired other researchers to share his vision of the future potential of fiber optics. The first ultrapure fiber was successfully fabricated just four years later, in 1970.
Today, optical fibers make up the circulatory system that nourishes our communication society. These low-loss glass fibers facilitate global broadband communication. Light flows in thin threads of glass, and it carries almost all of the telephony and data traffic in each direction. Text, music, images and video can be transferred around the world in a split second.
If we were to unravel all of the glass fibers used in the world, we would get a single thread more than 1 billion kilometers long, which is enough to encircle the world more than 25,000 times. The current amount is increasing by thousands of kilometers every hour.
A large share of the traffic is made up of digital images, which constitute the second part of the award.
In 1969, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor, a charge-coupled device (CCD). The CCD technology makes use of the photoelectric effect, as theorized by Albert Einstein and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921. By this effect, light is transformed into electrical signals. The challenge when designing an image sensor was to gather and quickly read the signals in a large number of image points, pixels.
The CCD is the digital camera’s electronic eye. It revolutionized photography, as light could now be captured electronically instead of on film. The digital form facilitates the processing and distribution of these images. CCD technology also is used in many medical applications, e.g., imaging the inside of the human body, both for diagnostics and microsurgery. It also is used in security surveillance cameras.
For these achievements, the recipients were awarded 10 million Swedish krona (about $1.2 million). Kao received half for his project, and Boyle and Smith share the other half.