Published online 6 October 2009 | 461, 707 (2009) | doi:10.1038/461707a

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Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to light pioneers

Advances in fibre optics and digital imaging are rewarded.

Two technologies that revolutionized science, computing and communication have secured their developers a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Charles KaoCharles Kao: fibre-optic cables.REUTERS

Charles Kao of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has won half the prize for his role in developing fibre-optic cables. The other half is shared by Willard Boyle and George Smith of Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, for their development of the charge-coupled device (CCD), an electronic chip that converts light into a digital signal.

In 1969, Boyle and Smith developed a chip that could transform light into an electronic signal. The duo used newly discovered metal oxide semiconductors that could convert photons into a flow of electrons, which could be read from the edges of the chip and used to recreate the image. The ability to digitally capture light has found application in nearly every field of science — particularly astronomy. "Basically, they revolutionized optical astronomy," says Mark Casali, head of instrumentation at the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany. Before the advent of CCDs, astronomers were imaging stars using photographic plates, which were less sensitive and less precise than their digital successors, Casali says. Using CCD cameras, astronomers have been able to discover faint galaxies and even see fluctuations in a star's light created by an orbiting planet.

Willard Boyle and George Smith developed charge-coupled devices.Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs

The detectors also made space-based astronomy a reality, says Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which coordinates science for the Hubble Space Telescope. "It made telescopes like the Hubble possible," he says. "You could now put large electronic detectors in space that could beam down digital pictures of some of the faintest objects human beings have ever seen."

Fibre optics has had an equally impressive impact on science, not least by facilitating collaboration on a global scale. But the transmission of data over thousands of kilometres seemed a distant dream when Kao first began his work on fibre-optic cables. Back then, fibres could carry light only a few metres by total internal reflection before the signal faded. Kao and his colleagues at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, UK, worked out that impurities, mainly iron ions, were causing the loss. Kao identified an alternative material — fused silica — that could carry light over much greater distances without significant loss. The work ultimately led to the billion-kilometre-long network of fibre-optic cables that span the globe today.

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Fibre optics will also have a pivotal role in the world's largest science experiment, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Europe's particle-physics centre near Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC's largest detectors create around a million gigabytes of raw data every second. The cables then shepherd the data to nearby servers and on to thousands of scientists in 33 countries through an ultrafast computer grid. "The whole infrastructure is based on optical fibre," says Ian Bird, the grid's project leader. "There's no way that our data rates could be sustained without it." 

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