Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"The phone rang just shortly before 5:45"



When the phone rang at 5:45 this morning, seventy-nine-year-old retired physicist George Smith didn't reach quite reach it in time to pick up. But the voice on the answering machine sounded suspiciously Swedish.

Moments later, Smith watched online as the Nobel committee announced that he and his Bell Labs colleague Willard Boyle had won half the 2009 Nobel prize in physics for inventing the crucial technology underlying digital cameras, modern-day telescopes, and many medical imaging devices.


In 1969, Smith and Boyle developed the charge-coupled device, or CCD, a semiconductor containing a 2-D array of capacitors that gain charge proportional to how much light hits them. By reading out the voltage from the edges of the array, the distribution of charge can be converted back into a digital picture. Not only is the technology found in every digital camera; in telescopes ranging from the Hubble Space Telescope to the gargantuan ground-based Gran Telescopo Canarias, CCDs are our eyes on the universe.

Light travels through an optical fiber via total internal reflection.

The other half of the prize honored an equally ubiquitous technology. Forty-years ago, Charles Kao figured out that long wires of fused silica allowed a light signal to travel long distances by reflecting at the boundary between the wire's surface and the outside. Today, over 186,000 miles of optical cable under the oceans allowed viewers around the world to watch via webcast as the Nobel committee in Sweden announced the prize. As Kao noted, "It certainly is due to the fiber optical networks that the news has traveled so fast."

A map of the undersea fiberoptic cables that connect our world.

As Richard Beales in theTelegraph points out, awarding a Nobel prize to technological innovation is somewhat of an anomaly for the physics prize, which usually recognizes fundamental discoveries that expand our understanding of the universe. But it's awesome to see the prize go to work that has touched just about every person on the planet. I doubt that very many people knew the scientific story behind their cell phone camera or their high-speed internet connection; most of us just take it for granted. As a commenter yesterday pointed out, Alfred Nobel's will states:

The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.

This year's winners in physics fulfill this requirement splendidly. Although Boyle and Smith have earned numerous awards for their work, I'd argue that the Nobel is the lone scientific prize that captures the attention of the public. Let's hope this year's anomalous prize makes these outstanding innovators more visible to the millions of people they've impacted.

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