Fiber Optics Pioneer Wins Nobel Prize

Charles K. Kao's work with glass eventually led to fiber optic communications networks that blanket the globe. Yeah, that's worth a Nobel.

This morning, Sweden time, Kao was named a winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. The official proclamation lauds him "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication."

Kao's work now takes its place in the Nobel rolls alongside crucial discoveries such as x-rays, cosmic background radiation, and that bra that converts into a gas mask. (Wait. Wrong awards.)

He takes home half of the $1.4 million prize, splitting it with the inventors of the charge-coupled device (CCD), the active ingredient in digital image capturing.

Combined, the two innovations have led to a revolution in being able to see other people's bad photography.

Kao's 1966 breakthrough was in getting fiber optic cables to transmit light across a distance worthwhile for telecom uses. At the time, fiber optic signals couldn't go more than about 20 meters before the light petered out.

The going theory, according to the Los Angeles Times story today, was that light loss was caused by imperfections in the glass. Kao took a different route, focusing on impurities. Eventually, that led to world's first ultrapure fiber, produced in 1970.

Kao, 74, was born in Shanghai and holds dual U.S./U.K. citizenship. His Nobel-winning work was done at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in London.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

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