Communication pioneers win 2009 physics Nobel prize

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The Independent Online

A pioneer in fibre-optics and two scientists who figured out how to turn light into electronic signals - work that paved the way for the Internet age - were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for physics today.

Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born British-American, won half the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.4m) prize for research that led to a breakthrough in fibre-optics, determining how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibres.

Willard Boyle, a Canadian-American, and George Smith of the United States shared the other half for inventing the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor.

"This year's Nobel prize in physics is awarded for two scientic achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today's networked societies," the award-winning committee said in a statement.

"They have created many practical innovations for everyday life and provided new tools for scientific exploration."

Boyle, raised over the phone to address a news conference at the Nobel committee in the Swedish capital, said he had yet to fully comprehend that he had won the award.

"I have not had my morning cup of coffee yet, so I am feeling a little bit not quite with it all. But I have this lovely feeling all over my body, like 'Wow, this is really quite exciting, but is it real?'" he said.

Kao's work on fibre-optics in 1966 formed the basis for the production of the first "ultrapure" fibre only four years later, setting the stage for the communication society of today.

"These low-gloss glass fibres facilitate global broadband communication such as the Internet," the committee said.

"Text, music, images and video can be transferred around in the globe in a split second."

A large chunk of the traffic is made up of digital images, which is where Boyle and Smith come in. In 1969, they invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor.

"It revolutionised photography, as light can be captured electronically instead of on film," the committee said.

The work by Boyle and Smith, both employed by U.S. Bell Laboratories before retiring more than 20 years ago, led to progress in areas as diverse as microsurgery and space exploration.

"When the Mars probe was on the surface of Mars and (they) used a camera like ours - that wouldn't have been possible without our invention," Boyle said.

But the invention had also has had other repercussions, some considered less welcome by privacy-minded people.

"We are the ones who started this profusion of little, small cameras working all over the world," Boyle added.

The Nobel prizes are handed out annually for achievements in science, peace, literature and economics. The prizes bearing the name of Alfred Nobel were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the 1895 will of the Swedish dynamite millionaire.