Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Let us now pause to praise great engineers

The Nobel Prize in Physics was handed out in Stockholm and the winners were three "masters of light" who advanced technology to bring us high-speed internet and digital cameras. Since I'm a fiber optics engineer, I obviously have a spot in my heart for new Nobelist Charles Kao who some consider the "father of optical fiber":

Since the 1930s, researchers had been using short optical fibers-solid, slender bits of glass that trap light inside, allowing it to be transmitted.
But the available fibers didn't work over long distances, Nordgren said. "After 20 meters [66 feet], most of the light was gone."
In research published in 1966, Kao discovered that, even though the glass being used for the fiber-optic cables seemed clear, it actually carried many impurities, which were disrupting the light transmission.
Kao's discoveries pushed companies to devise new ways of making ultrapure glass—eventually leading to today's fiber-optic cables, which can carry signals hundreds of miles with very little light loss.
"More than a billion kilometers of fibers around the world that connect us all, almost instantly," the Nobel Committee's Nordgren said.
"And this is due to the work by Kao, that inspired and started the evolution of optical communication that we have today."
Kao's discovery about glass defects led to new technologies to create pure glass from scratch instead of melting it from raw materials like the glass in your window. The result was super-clear glass that could transmit light over long distances without losing the light signal. To put this in perspective, the glass was so clear it was like seeing the bottom of the ocean. The result: a vast network of communication links carrying massive amounts of data on beams of light.

In 1988, the first optical-fiber cable was laid under the Atlantic Ocean, capable of carrying tens of thousands of times more information than the metal cables it replaced. Today, more than 600 million miles of optical fiber have been laid, enough to circle the globe 25,000 times. High-efficiency optical amplifiers placed at strategic intervals renew the signals so they can travel such long distances.

Fiber-optic communication "is essential for high-speed Internet and forms the optical backbone of 21st century commerce," said H. Frederick Dylla, director of the American Institute of Physics. "The CCD sensor has revolutionized technical, professional and consumer photography in the last few decades. Taken together, these inventions may have had a greater impact on humanity than any others in the last half-century."
Congratulations, gentlemen, and thank you!

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