/ 6 October 2009

‘Masters of light’ win Nobel Physics Prize

Charles Kao, Willard Boyle and George Smith on Tuesday won the 2009 Nobel Physics Prize for pioneering ”masters of light” work on fibre optics and semiconductors, the Nobel jury said.

Hong Kong-based expert Kao and his two American counterparts were hailed for creating the two tools that helped unleash the Information Technology revolution of today.

”This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics is 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,” it said.

One of them is the fibre-optic cable, which enables transmission of data at the speed of light, the Nobel jury said.

Kao, who has British nationality but has been based in Hong Kong, was awarded half of the prize for ”groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication”, it said.

”If we were to unravel all of the glass fibres that wind around the globe, we would get a single thread over one billion kilometres long — which is enough to encircle the globe more than 25 000 times — and is increasing by thousands of kilometres every hour,” it said.

Kao’s discovery means that ”text, music, images and video can be transferred around the globe in a split second”, the jury said.

Boyle and Smith shared the other half of the prize for ”the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit — the CCD sensor”, or the charge-coupled device, which is the ”electronic eye” of the digital camera.

The CCD sensor, invented in 1969, ”revolutionised photography, as light could be now captured electronically instead of on film”.

CCD technology is also used in many medical applications, such as imaging the inside of the human body, both for diagnostics and for microsurgery.

Last year, the prize went to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa of Japan and Yoichiro Nambu of the United States for groundbreaking theoretical work on fundamental particles called quarks.

On Monday, Australian-American scientist Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider and Jack Szostak of the United States won the Nobel Medicine Prize for identifying a key molecular switch in cellular ageing.

The Chemistry Prize laureates will be named on Wednesday, followed by the Literature Prize on Thursday and the Peace Prize on Friday. The Economics Prize will wrap up the awards on Monday, October 12.

The Nobel prizes, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, were first awarded in 1901.

Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died childless in 1896, dedicating his vast fortune to create ”prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”.

Laureates receive a gold medal, a diploma and 10-million Swedish kronor ($1,42-million) which can be split between up to three winners per prize.

The formal awarding of the prizes will take place at gala ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10. — AFP