This article was contributed by Kevin Beier

Instantaneous transmission of stunning scenes from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing; the ability to call family from anywhere in the world, anytime; these are luxuries that have only existed in recent decades.  They depend on two key advancements: an intricate and elaborate mesh of fiber optic cables spanning the globe, and the ability to transform light into electrical signals to create digital images.  The importance of this work cannot be underestimated: without these developments, the computer you are using would likely not be able to access and display the article you are reading right now!  For the impact of these technologies on the global community, the work pioneered by Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, and George E. Smith received the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics.

We all use fiber optics – from telephone communications to internet transmission to cable television signals, fiber optic communication permeates all aspects of long distance communication.  Before development of fiber optic technology, copper wires were used, which could transmit information only small distances and had high levels of interference.  At the time of invention of the first fiber optic cables – the 1960’s – existing cables could only transmit light signals about 20 meters.  The first fiber optic cables developed could transmit light up to about 10,000x that distance!

Fiber Optics ImageThe fiber optic cables act as long tubes in which electromagnetic waves can travel – using total internal reflection to keep the information traveling in the same direction.  This scenario is similar to a house of mirrors – all of the light that reflects from your body is then reflected by the mirrors, which then reaches your eye.  None of the light is lost to the outside world because you are surrounded by mirrors: the mirrors keep the light reflecting back and forth until it reaches your eyes.  Using total internal reflection in fiber optic cables means that light cannot exit the cable; it is instead reflected and continues traveling, permitting long distance communication.  The image above shows a laser moving through a fiber optic cable: the laser beam is reflected off the sides and continues moving through the cable until it reaches the end, where it exits.  In essence, the current level of extensive worldwide networking simply would not be possible without the development of fiber optic technology.  These fine, glass fibers that act as conduits for information are the very network that drives our current extent of globalization. Charles K. Kao was awarded half of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for his work in developing a material suitable for long-distance fiber optic communications.  The pioneering discovery was that glass used at the time contained too many impurities for long-distance communication.  He led the way in implementing new types of glass fibers, and dreams of long-distance electrical communications were realized.

The use of this fiber optic technology has reached many types of digital media.  In fact, the other half of the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for work on the development of digital images.  Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, who each received one quarter of the prize, were the first to develop what are known as CCD’s, or Charge-Coupled Devices.   These Charge-Coupled Devices are able to transform light into electrical signals.  This is based on a phenomenon termed the photoelectric effect, first understood by Albert Einstein, who himself won the Nobel Prize for this work in 1921.  While the theory of the photoelectric effect was known for about 60 years, the ability to transform light into high-quality images consisting of a large number of points in a small time remained a formidable challenge.

CCD’s have evolved over time as the “Eye” of digital cameras: CCD’s capture light and turn it into a useful image in much the same way that our eyes are able to capture the light around us and turn it into the image that we see.   The CCD is subdivided into smaller segments, like a grid, with each section of the grid gathering information about the intensity of light at that particular location in the grid.  Information is collected about the intensity and color of light, and stored in memory, later retrievable as an image.  As the technology has improved, it has been used extensively for, among many other uses, medical applications: the ability to image the inside of the human body has become important for both diagnostic purposes and for microsurgeries.  CCD’s have also become a critical component of scientific research spanning all fields, ultimately contributing to the rapid expanse of knowledge that we have seen in recent decades, both in its acquisition and transportation.

The pioneering scientists who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics truly developed technologies that have become irreplaceable components of everyday life in the modern world.

For more information, please see:

On fiber optics:

On CCD’s:

CCD’s and Lucent Technologies: