Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 12:46 UK

Nobel honours 'masters of light'

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

CCDs have transformed scientific measurement and everyday life

Three scientists who corralled light to transform our communications systems share this year's physics Nobel Prize.

Charles Kao is lauded for his work in the UK in helping to develop fibre optic cables, the thin threads of glass that carry phone and net data as light.

Willard Boyle and George Smith, both North Americans, are recognised for their part in the invention of the charge-coupled device, or CCD.

This light detector initiated the digital camera revolution.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which administers the prize, said half of the award would go to Kao, who was born in Shanghai, China, in 1933 and holds UK-US citizenship.

It was his insight while working in Britain in the 1960s, said the academy, which allowed researchers to take fibre optics to a new level - to enable these thin cables to transmit light over much longer distances than had previously been possible.

Kao's team, including George Hockham, at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow proposed the means to improve dramatically the purity - and therefore the efficiency - of the glass material used to construct the fibres.

Today, fibre optics underpin the communication age.

The hair-like cables speed data around the globe in the form of rapid pulses of light.

The modern telephony system is built on the technology, and high-speed broadband internet would not be possible without it.

Wondrous views

The other half of the prize is to be split between Boyle, aged 85, and Smith, 79. Their breakthrough was made at Bell Laboratories in the US.

The North Americans' group invented the first digital sensor, a CCD (charge-coupled device), in 1969.

Fibre optics (SPL)
Fibre optics have made the world a much smaller place

The CCD contains arrays of photosensitive cells which become charged when light falls on them. The more light, the greater the charge. The chip reads out this signal, which can then be used to render an image.

The academy said the work of Canadian-born Boyle and US citizen Smith "revolutionised photography, as light could be now captured electronically instead of on film".

While the technology delivered instant pictures to the masses, CCDs have also transformed scientific observation.

Specialist detectors are now incorporated into the imaging systems of all space missions.

The Hubble telescope, for example, records its wondrous views of the cosmos on CCDs. And the vivid landscapes of Mars returned by robotic vehicles have also been captured on charge-coupled devices.

Such is the pace of change that CCDs are themselves being overtaken by CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) technology. This works in a related fashion but runs cooler, is more efficient and is cheaper to produce.

Hubble image (Nasa/Esa/STSCI
The Hubble telescope records its images on CCDs

Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, from the UK's Institute of Physics, celebrated the announcement.

"Ours is the age of information and images, and no two things better symbolise this than the internet and digital cameras," he said.

"From kilobytes to gigabytes, and now to petabytes and exabytes, information has never been so free-flowing or, with the development of the CCD, so instantly visual. These incredible inventors who have been responsible for transforming the world in which we live very much deserve their prize."

The Nobel Prizes - which also cover chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and economics (more properly called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize) - are valued at 10m Swedish Kronor (£900,000; 1m euros; $1.4m).

Laureates also receive a medal and a diploma.

This year's medicine Nobel, announced on Monday, honoured the study of telomeres, the structures in cells that cap the ends of DNA bundles, or chromosomes.

The work has furthered our understanding on human ageing, cancer and stem cells.

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