For once the Nobel Prize for physics has been awarded for tangible, important work: giving society the ability to surf the web for funny pictures of cats, and giving us camera cellphones.
Normally, the Nobel prize committee favours the kind of science fully understood by only a handful of people; particle physics, the state of the early universe and quantum mechanics. This year, however, the award recognises work that every middle class citizen of the earth uses every day.
Charles K Kao’s research allowed fibre optic cables to be extended over long distances, effectively giving us the cost-effective global internet. Instead of satellites (expensive to launch and slow) or electrical cables (expensive to make and of low capacity) we have cross-crossed the oceans with cables that carry information – lots of it – at the speed of light. The Nobel committee at least believes that would not have been possible without Kao’s contribution.
Willard Boyle and George E Smith cracked the problem of effectively capturing images with a digital sensor. Their development of the charged coupled device (better known as the CCD) made possible the glut of digital cameras and cell-phone cameras that have flooded the world over the last decade.
For these important achievements Kao will get around $700,000 and Boyle and Smith will split the same amount between them. Far more lucrative is the little certificate each of them will receive; convertible to tenure at the institution of their choice or instant access to the mostly highly paid echelons of the global speaking circuit. They may not have made the kind of money their inventions have earned those who commercialised them, but at least they won’t be going hungry for the rest of their lives.