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23 September 2017
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Nobel honours 'masters of light'

Three scientists...

Three scientists who corralled light to transform our communications systems share this year`s physics Nobel Prize, according to BBC.

Briton Charles Kao is lauded for his work in helping to develop fibre optic cables, the slender 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 lies at the heart of nearly all digital cameras.

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 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, both whom made their breakthrough at Bell Laboratories at Murray Hill in the US state of New Jersey.

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

CCDs are based on the photoelectric effect, the characterisation of which earned Albert Einstein a Nobel.

By this effect, light particles falling on a material are seen to disturb its electrons. The CCD reads this disturbance and converts into an electric signal.

The challenge when designing an image sensor was to gather and read out the signals in a large number of image points, pixels, in a short time, the Nobel committee said.

In meeting that challenge, Boyle and Smith "revolutionised photography, as light could be now captured electronically instead of on film," it added.

While the technology has 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.

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 end`s of DNA bundles, or chromosomes.

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

By Jonathan Amos, BBC

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