Chinese engineer wins Nobel for optical breakthrough

Robert Clark
07 Oct 2009

Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born electronics engineer, has won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his crucial pioneering work on optical communications.

Two US scientists, Willard Boyle and George Smith, were also awarded the prize for inventing the CCD (Charge-Coupled Device), a core technology for digital cameras.

Announcing the award, the Nobel committee said it was presented for “scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies.”

The committee said that in 1966 Kao had calculated how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibers, despite skepticism of senior colleagues.

“With a fiber of 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.”

Five years later scientists at Corning developed a 1-km long optical fiber.

“Today optical fibers make up the circulatory system that nourishes our communication society,” the committee said. “If we were to unravel all of the glass fibers that wind around the globe, we would get a single thread over 1 billion kilometers long – which is enough to encircle the globe more than 25 000 times – and is increasing by thousands of kilometers every hour.”

Kao, now 75, was raised and educated in Hong Kong. He graduated from high school in 1952 and received his doctorate in London in 1965 when he was employed at the Standard Telecommunication Laboratories.

He was vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) for nine years until his retirement in 1996.

The joint prize to Boyle and Smith was the seventh won by Bell Labs and took the total number of Bell Labs researchers who have won the Nobel to thirteen., Alcatel-Lucent said.

The two former Bell Labs scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for their invention and development of the charge-coupled device (CCD), a technology that transforms patterns of light into useful digital information, and is the basis for many forms of modern digital imaging.

CCD is used in devices as as digital cameras, video cameras and bar code readers as well as in security monitoring, medical endoscopy and video conferencing.

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