Science

Pioneers Of Fiber Optics, Semiconductors Win Nobel

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The Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for their work in fiber-optics and semiconductors. The Nobel committee Tuesday said the three scientists helped shape the foundations of today's networked society.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics goes to three men who developed revolutionary technologies that we can now take for granted.

NPR's Richard Harris is following the announcements coming out of Stockholm this morning. He's in our studios here in Washington.

Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And he's with us live. Okay, half this prize goes to a man who figured out how to make fiber optic cables, which carry phone calls and all kinds of other data.

Who is this man?

HARRIS: His name is Charles Kao. He was born in Shanghai in 1933. He went off to London to go to college and then he went to work for a place called Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, which is now defunct, in the U.K. But he realized that if you could figure out how to make nice pure glass fibers, you could send light beams down it and send energy and information down there much, much more efficiently than on wires.

INSKEEP: And then the genius here, if Im not mistaken, is that you dont just have phone call or something going down a phone line, you can have thousands of signals down the same fiber optic cable.

HARRIS: Absolutely. You can pack a huge amount of information in. And he actually rather - this was in the early or mid '60s - he actually rather quickly figured out how to make these fibers pure enough that they could carry these signals a long distance. Cause, you know, obviously distance matters here. And just in a couple of years, he was able to figure out how to do that. So...

INSKEEP: How widespread are fiber optic cables today?

HARRIS: Well, the Nobel committee gave a rather astonishing statistic that said there are so much of that in the world now, that if you wrapped it around the world you could wrap it around 25,000 times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Oh, my God.

HARRIS: (unintelligible) obviously running under the streets, it's everywhere. It's the backbone of the Internet. I mean, basically, you know, we'd be lost without fiber optics.

INSKEEP: And let's talk about the other winners of the Nobel Prize. It's a split prize here and the other half is shared by a couple of guys who developed the technology thats at the heart of digital cameras, which must be almost as ubiquitous as fiber optic cables at this point.

HARRIS: That's true. And this prize was shared by two scientists working together, named Willard Boyle and George Smith. They were at the famed Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, back in the heyday of the labs when they were producing all sorts of astonishing inventions. I think this is the seventh Nobel Prize that came out of Bell Labs...

INSKEEP: Hmm.

HARRIS: ...back in - largely from that era. So at any rate, they were brainstorming and they were trying to figure out sort of new technologies that might work. And they realized that if you take a you could make sort of a semi-conductor chip that would essentially take light signals that would hit the chip and turn it into electrical signals. And so you have light you can turn it into electrical signals, and then all of a sudden a computer can interpret these signals.

INSKEEP: Is it overstating it to say that there work is in some level behind or an ancestor of every cell phone camera, every digital camera that we use today?

HARRIS: Absolutely. It's called the charge-coupled device is what they invented. The technology has evolved a little bit these days, so its in your cell phones a little bit different. But these charge-coupled devices are still in telescopes. They're in digital cameras, movie cameras, all of that kind of stuff.

And one of the earliest applications actually was in spy satellites, cause back in the old days, spy satellites used to take pictures with film and then they'd dropped the film from the spy satellite, and a plane would have to go and catch this in a basket, which was obviously kind of a dicey thing to do. And obviously the military was delighted to think, wow, we could just take pictures and beam, electronically, this information back to Earth.

So that was potentially one of the most important parts of this. Now it's in medical technology. It's everywhere.

INSKEEP: And we've all got a spy satellite in our pocket, practically.

HARRIS: Practically, we do. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Richard Harris is with us this morning bringing us up to date on three men who will share the Nobel Prize for Physics.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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