In October, three scientists who were the driving force behind the creation of the technology that gave us digital photography and the instantaneous links to people around the world through fiber optics were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. The three scientists are: Charles Kuen Kao, Willard S. Boyle, and George E. Smith. These three men were instrumental in developing the technologies for digital photography and fiber-optic networking, and will split the $1.4 million USD award, with Kao receiving 50% and Boyle and Smith 25% each. They will be awarded their certificate and prizes at the ceremony December 10th in Stockholm, Sweden.
Charles Kuen Kao was born in Shanghai in 1933, and educated in Hong Kong. He received an electrical engineering degree from the University of London in 1957, and a PhD from Imperial College London in 1965. The work he’s been praised for was done during the period of 1965 to 1969, while he was employed with the precursor to today’s Nortel Networks. A pioneer in the field, he showed through careful testing that fiber optic cables lost their signal not because the technology was flawed, but because the glass was. Manufacturers have since developed fiber optic cables that are extremely pure, per his specifications. This technology is a critical component of our modern communication systems, including high-speed internet and phone calls around the world.
Willard Boyle and George Smith were cited for their invention of a semiconductor circuit known as the CCD sensor. These two scientists worked diligently together to invent the CCD, or charged-coupled device, that is the “eye” of every digital camera made. From the simplest point and click to delicate arthroscopic surgical camera instruments, each uses the CCD technology. Working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, the two “invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor, a CCD” according to the Academy’s citation.
The technology they developed “revolutionized photography, as light could now be captured electronically instead of on film,” the Academy said. They had successfully designed an image sensor that could transform light into a large number of image points, or pixels. Without the CCD, we still would not know what our neighboring planets look like. The photos of Mars that we’ve all seen were transmitted back to Earth using digital cameras, and they would have been impossible without this technology. Likewise, less-invasive surgical procedures have been developed using the technology. Operations can now be performed through small incisions, and often without disturbing the surrounding areas, enabling speedier recovery time.
Willard Sterling Boyle is Canadian-American and was born in 1924. He served in the Rayal Canadian Navy during World War II, and later obtained his B.S. degree in 1947, his M.S. degree in 1948, and his Ph.D. in 1950, and from McGill University in Montreal. He worked with Don Nelson, and was named on the patent for the first semiconductor injection laser. During the same time period, he was director to Bellcomm’s Space Science and Exploratory Studies program and provided support to the Apollo program. Returning to Bell Labs in 1964, he worked alongside George Smith to develop CCD’s.
George Elwood Smith, an American, was born in 1930 and received his B.S. degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1959. During his thirty years at Bell Labs, from 1959 through 1989, he worked alongside Willard Boyle researching the development of CCD’s. Technically, CCD’s are a way to pass “charge bubbles” through a chain of semiconductors, so that visual images are recorded electronically with no need for film.
Both Dr. Smith and Dr. Boyle received numerous other awards through the years: 2006 Charles Stark Draper Prize, 1974 IEEE Morris N. Liebmann Memorial Award, and 1973 Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal.
“The Nobel Prize in Physics 2009.”
Nobelprize.org 2009 Web. 2 Dec. 2009
Moore, Matt and Ritter, Karl. “3 men share 2009 Nobel Prize in physics for work in networking society, digital photography.”
Associated Press. 6 Oct. 2009. Web. 2 Dec. 2009
Zimmerman Jones, Andrew. “Famous Physicists.”
About.com. 2009. Web. 2 Dec. 2009