By Patricia Daukantas
As you may have already read today, the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics will honor achievements in fiber optics and digital imaging. Charles K. Kao will receive half the prize for his pioneering work in creating low-attenuation glass fibers for optical communications. Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith will share the other half for their invention of the CCD sensor 40 years ago.
Kao, a former member of the Optics Letters editorial team, plays a role in a fascinating OPN article by Jeff Hecht, published in October 2000: “The_Clearest_Glass_in_the_World.pdf (320.65 kb)” [PDF]. Before the work of Kao and F.F. Roberts of Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (then the British Post Office Research Laboratory) in the mid-1960s, impurities made glass fibers way too lossy to carry light signals for any meaningful distance.
Boyle and Smith’s invention of the CCD is depicted in the timeline accompanying Joseph Mait’s February 2006 OPN article “A_History_of_Imaging-Revisiting_the_Past to_Chart_the_Future.pdf (522.83 kb)” [also PDF]. Of course, OPN has published dozens of articles over the years on not just the technology of the device itself, but on the many applications of CCDs – from astronomy and spectroscopy to medical imaging and deep-ocean photography.
A profile of Boyle on a Canadian Web site tells the story of the CCD’s invention and mentions that Boyle and a colleague had developed the first continuously operating ruby laser years before his CCD work.
In a statement released today, OSA’s CEO Elizabeth Rogan congratulated the three newest Nobel laureates. In 2001, Boyle and Smith received the Edwin H. Land Medal, awarded jointly by OSA and the Society for Imaging Science and Technology.
Both of this year’s Nobel achievements touch our lives every day. Just last week, the Internet brought me a digital photo of a relative’s baby granddaughter just hours after she was born hundreds of miles from where I live. Without the inventions of Kao, Boyle and Smith, I’d be receiving the snapshots in the postal mail only now.