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Archive for October 6th, 2009

Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith share this years Nobel prize in Physics for their contributions to the transmission and detection of light. Congratulations to the three of them.

Charles K. Kao did research in material science of glass, and argued that the losses in glass fibers available in the 1960’s where mostly due to impurities in the material. A few years later glass of sufficient purity was made by Corning, and modern fiber optics telecommunications where born. Nowadays, this technology impacts us directly by making the infrastructure that handles the information traffic of the internet possible.

Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith created the CCD. This is one of the main technologies in modern photography. It make the capture and reading of light fast and efficient and it essentially made photographic film obsolete: the cost of capturing an image went down to essentially zero. It is also one of the standard technologies for astrophysics and most importantly, it is not restricted to the visible spectrum. It can be used to read light from distant sources very fast, data that can be transmitted to researchers all over the world very quickly (we don’t have to wait to develop the film), and being in electronic format, it is easy to manipulate, send and store. This is anther technology that has wide applications on the Internet, capturing live images that end up in U-Tube and Flicker.

Lubos laments the fact that the Nobel prize went just for technology. Although I sympathize, I think that this is not a bad choice at all. Although one can call this applied physics rather than fundamental physics, the technological breakthroughs enabled by these inventions is truly remarkable. Nowadays, we take it for granted. But it is truly a marvelous thing. Today,  I can have a video-phone conversation on the Internet with someone on the other side of the planet, for a costs that is essentially zero. This is a science fiction idea that did come through, but not necessarily the way they were originally envisioned.

You should also consider that modern telecommunications account for a big chunk of the worlds GDP, and it will surely grow in the future. The technologies that make this possible come from Physics research, and it might take many years before the engineering issues and the costs can be lowered enough so that we all benefit from them. Besides, the whole architecture of the modern Internet came out from CERN. A lot of people needed to look at large chunks of data with completely independent computer systems ans operating systems. A common message protocol for communications and standards for addressing data was born from these necessities. It would be hard to give a Nobel prize for that.

I would wish that the public at large was more aware that the technologies of today are the product of years of development, starting from physics discoveries and inventions and refined by engineers so that they can be mass produced with quality that can be controlled. Without the first invention, the rest of the process doesn’t work.

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