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Autumn, Dynamite, Nobel, and the Mastery of Light

Pardon me a moment while I get this off my chest.

Can you fricken believe it’s the middle October, the fall foliage is approaching maximum awesomeness, Halloween is almost here and it’s actually SNOWING in Connecticut???

There is something fundamentally wrong with that. I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if some laws of physics were being broken.

OK, I feel a little better.

On to the post….

Congratulations to Charles Kao, Willard Boyle and George Smith for winning this years Nobel Prize in Physics.

Like some of Steve’s Science or Fiction segments, this year’s Nobel prize for physics had a theme: Light Technology

Do you know the genesis of the Nobel prizes? I love this story. Chemist and Inventor Alfred Nobel woke up one day to read his obituary in a French newspaper. It was a little premature of course but he was a bit pissed that he was was referred to as the “Merchant of Death”. The obit went on…

“Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

This was all due to his invention of dynamite, of course. I read once that he naively thought dynamite was so powerful and deadly that it would actually end wars. Not sure if that’s apocryphal though. Anyway, he wanted a better legacy than that so he set up the annual Nobel prizes.

nobelwinners

When Gunnar Oquist, the academy’s secretary general announced the winners recently, he said that the work of the physics winners “has built the foundation to our modern information society.”

He wasn’t exaggerating.

The first half of the 1.4 million dollar prize went to engineer Charles Kao

“for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication”

In fact, he’s widely regarded as the “Father of Fiber Optic Communications”. In the mid sixties, fiber optics already existed but their application was very local. The problem was their range. They would only work for 20 meters or so because the light would attentuate into nothingness.

It was thought that imperfections in the glass were scattering the light but Kao realized that it wasn’t a manufacturing problem. The glass itself wasn’t pure enough. It was his idea to fuse quartz to make a more transparent medium. He was laughed at when he presented his paper in the late sixties. I guess he’s been laughing now for quite a while.

The big estimate lots of articles are mentioning now is that there’s about 600 million miles of fiber etching the surface of the earth.  This distance would get you somewhere between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn or about 25,000 times around the earth. Using the speed of light in optical fiber, I calculated that it would take about 80 minutes to go through all that fiber. The new stuff is being laid down pretty fast as well. You’d have to travel at thousands of kilometers per hour just to keep up with it.

So what’s the future hold for optical fibers?
Actually, what’s next is already here. Photonic Crystal Fibers.
These fibers use diffraction instead of total internal reflection to move down the fiber. These microstructured fibers are made of different types of material and actually have lots of long air channels going down their entire length.

The benefit of this new material is that it’s highly configurable depending on the application. For example, the empty channels can be filled with liquid or gas. This tweak-ability gives the fiber some peculiar properties allowing it to be used for quantum optics, fiber-optic sensing, high power pulse transmission to name just a few. This is one of the most active fields of optics research. Perhaps we’ll see another Nobel prize for this work in a few decades.

Much of that information coursing through the fiber are digital images (can you say…Porn….I knew that you could). That leads then to the second half of the Nobel prize for physics.

This part was awarded to Willard Boyle and George Smith who worked at the prolific Bell Labs in the late 1960s

“for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor”

CCD stands for Charge Coupled Device. If you’ve ever taken a digital picture, then you’ve held a CCD in your hands. They essentially take photons of light and turn them into digital images to be stored, photo-shopped, uploaded, printed, auto-eroticated and all the other things we do to them.

In September of ’69, Bill and George were working on a new type of electronic memory.

Dr. Smith says that

“But in my first notebook entry, I fully described how we would use it as an imaging device as well.”

They were working specifically on a picture phone but that project was canceled and they moved on to other projects. The CCD genie though had already been released and he’s been a very busy little genie hasn’t he?

If you’re interested, CCDs work because of the photoelectric effect which was discovered by Heinrich Hertz but first explained by Einstein. That’s what he won the Nobel prize for in the 1920s. Can you believe that he never won it for Relativity?

This effect describes what can happen when light is absorbed by metal, say. When the light energy is above a certain threshold, It knocks out electrons.
This phenomenon isn’t good for just CCDs though. The study of this effect was one of the key events that led to our understanding of the quantum nature of light and electrons and also helped scientists conceptualize the wave-particle duality of light.

When the modern CCD  then is exposed to light, say from a birthday party, this light hits the CCD knocking out electrons which then gather in these small wells called capacitors which are essentially each pixel of the image. The brighter the light at each capacitor, the the greater the charge it holds. Once the camera shutter closes, the charges are added up to recreate the original scene digitally.

It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like without fiber optics and CCDs. It makes me think about what future revolution is being investigated in labs around the world right now.

When I’m in my jet-rocker at the high-age home and the physics Nobel prize announcement is beamed into my cranium petabyte hard-drive I’ll probably say:

‘What would the world be like without……..”

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