Fiber Optics, Imaging Pioneers Win Physics Nobel The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for breakthroughs in fiber optics and digital imaging.
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Fiber Optics, Imaging Pioneers Win Physics Nobel

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Fiber Optics, Imaging Pioneers Win Physics Nobel

Fiber Optics, Imaging Pioneers Win Physics Nobel

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

NORRIS: quarks, broken symmetry, magnetoresistance. Well, not so this year. With today's Nobel Prizes, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is celebrating tangible discoveries, things you use every day. One scientist is honored for inventing fiber optic communications. And two others got the nod for inventing the technology that is the basis of digital cameras.

NPR's Richard Harris tells their stories.

RICHARD HARRIS: Let's turn back the clock a few decades and drop in on Bell Labs in New Jersey. This is where the transistor was invented and where the laser came into being. It was a place of remarkable ideas. Willard Boyle and George Smith were part of that magical time. Smith says in October of 1969, they were trying to outsmart another part of Bell Labs to come up with a new type of computer memory.

HARRIS: Bill Boyle and I frequently got together to kick around ideas, and this was one of them. The actual invention took place one afternoon.

HARRIS: The idea, drawn on a blackboard, was a new kind of electronic circuit they called a Charge-Coupled Device. It could work as a new kind of computer memory. But Smith realized it had a lot more potential than that.

HARRIS: It became immediately obvious that this device would also make a very good imaging device.

HARRIS: CCDs can capture light and turn it into simple electronic signals, so a visual image could be converted instantly into digital form. Digital photography was born. The military was intensely interested in this for spy satellites, and the first commercial application was for digital TV cameras. Digital still cameras lagged by quite some time, Smith says, because compact memory was still hard to come by - that is until flash memory was invented. Smith knows this story intimately.

HARRIS: I had a small exploratory research department at the laboratories, about 30 people, I guess. And the flash memory was invented in my department also.

HARRIS: Smith and Boyle came up with dozens of inventions during their time at Bell Labs, often working together. And then, when Smith was still in his mid-50s, he simply hung up the towel.

HARRIS: I retired in 1986, jumped in my sailboat, sailed around the world.

HARRIS: And he took 17 years to do it, lingering especially long in the South Pacific with his sweetheart. Why, you might wonder, would a prolific and highly successful inventor just call it quits?

HARRIS: If one is honest about it, as you grow older, your inventive abilities deteriorate. I have run into many people at Bell Labs when they were younger were really great and then they sort of went downhill, even though they didn't admit it.

HARRIS: These days, Bell Labs is no longer seen as a place of unfettered creativity. But Smith and Boyle can see for themselves how their inventions changed the world. CCDs are not just in cameras. They are in satellites, medical devices, and notably telescopes. Peter Stockman at the Space Telescope Science Institute says they have revolutionized astronomy.

HARRIS: Practically anything in the last 30 years would have been essentially impossible without CCDs.

HARRIS: Hubble's incredible images are captured on CCDs and so are the images taken by telescopes all around the world. CCDs helped astronomers study the black holes that lie at the heart of galaxies and measure the age of the universe. And now, Willard Boyle and George Smith can add a punctuation mark to their careers: the Nobel Prize. Smith is still trying to find the words to describe it all.

HARRIS: Well, when I wake up, I'll let you know.

HARRIS: George Smith and Willard Boyle share half of the $1.4 million prize. The other half goes to Charles Kao, who revolutionized global communications with his work in fiber optics.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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