Tripping the Light Fantastic

With all the hoopla surrounding President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, the other 2009 Nobel Prizes have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle. In particular, I want to acknowledge the winners of the Physics Prize, which was awarded to three scientists for their work in fiber optics and digital imaging. But whereas the Peace Prize seems to have been awarded based on potential, the Physics Prize honors work done four decades ago that has had a fundamental impact on our lives today.

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics will be shared by Charles Kao for his pioneering work in fiber optics and Willard Boyle and George Smith for their invention of the Charged Coupled Device (CCD), a semiconductor-based digital-imaging chip. Aside from some really nice swag—a medal, a diploma, and a trip to Sweden for the awards ceremony—the three men will share about $1.4 million. Unfortunately for the CCD guys, they will have to split only half of that; the other half goes to Kao. Hey, no one ever said life was fair!

In the late 1960s, Kao was a young engineer at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in England, tasked with looking into whether or not light could be used to transmit information over long distances instead of microwaves. The principle of fiber optics—sending light through a clear glass fiber—had already been demonstrated, but it was very inefficient, retaining only 1 percent of the incident light after only 50 feet. Kao's breakthrough was determining the best wavelengths to use and specifying the optimum optical properties of the glass fiber.

Today, 95 percent of the incident light survives through a mile of optical fiber. And because light can be switched on and off so much faster than electricity—not to mention that light travels much faster than electric current—optical fibers can carry far more data than any electrical connection. As a result, much of the digital information in our world, including streaming audio and video, is carried by optical fibers, at least along major backbone lines. Verizon FiOS goes one step farther, delivering digital data all the way into the home using fiber optics.

At around the same time, Boyle and Smith were working at Bell Labs in New Jersey. They were looking for ways to improve memory chips by assembling arrays of small semiconductor squares, but as they experimented with an early prototype, they discovered that it worked much better when the lights in the lab were off.

It turns out that the charge on the semiconductor elements changed when struck by light because photons kick some electrons out of their host atoms. This is known as the photoelectric effect, the explanation of which won Albert Einstein the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics and contributed to the development of quantum physics. The accidental discovery by Boyle and Smith led to CCD and, later, CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) imaging chips, which have revolutionized still and video photography.

Many will continue to argue about whether or not President Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. But no one can argue that the 2009 Physics Prize is well-earned by all three scientists. Their work made much of today's digital lifestyle possible, and for that, I salute them.