Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Fiber and CCDs

As you've all no doubt read by now, the 2009 Nobel in Physics was awarded to Charles K. Kao, for the development of truly low loss fiber optics (a technology that you're all using right now, unless the internet backbone in your country consists of smoke signals or semaphore flags), and Willard Boyle + George Smith for the invention of the CCD (charge-coupled device, which is the basis for all digital cameras, and has revolutionized spectroscopy).  

The CCD portion makes a tremendous amount of sense.  CCDs work by using local gates on a doped semiconductor wafer to capture charge generated by the absorption of light.  The charge is then shifted to an amplifier and the resulting voltage pulses are converted into a digital signal that can be interpreted by a computer.  The description given in the supporting document (pdf) on the Nobel website is very good.  CCDs have revolutionized astronomy and spectroscopy as well as photography, and the physics that must be understood and controlled in order to get these things to work well is quite rich (not just the charge generation process, but the solid state physics of screening, transport, and carrier trapping).

The fiber optic portion is more tricky, since many people have worked on the development of fiber optic communications.  Still, Kao had the insight that the real limitation on light propagation in fiber came from particular types of impurities, understood the physics of those impurities, guided a program toward clean material, and had the vision to see where this could all lead.  

Certainly there will be grumbling from some that these are <sneer>engineering</sneer> accomplishments rather than essential physics, as if having a practical impact with your science that leads to technology and helps society is somehow dirty, second-rate, or a sign of intellectual inferiority.  That is a terrible attitude, and I'm not just saying that because my bachelor's degree is in engineering.  Trust me:  some engineers have just as much raw intellectual horsepower as high energy theoretical physicists.  Finding intellectual fulfillment in engineering is not some corruption of pure science - it's just how some very smart people prefer to spend their time.  Oh, by the way, the actual will of Alfred Nobel refers to accomplishments that "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind", and specifically mentions "the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention [my emphasis] within the field of physics".

Finally, this provides yet another data point on just how transformative Bell Labs (and other remarkable industrial R&D labs, including IBM, GE, and others) really was in the physical sciences.  The withering of long-term industrial research will be felt for a long, long time to come.



Don Monroe said...

One need not sneer to observe that these are, resepectively, materials and engineering accomplishments.

El Charro said...

I don't know if you wrote this post in part because of what Lubos Motl has on his blog.

It just keeps amazing me how blind some HE physicists are to the improvements in their research coming from the type of advances like the ones that got this Nobel prize.

Without good fiber optics they wouldn't be able to carry any of their new particle experiments. Let's not even talk about the remote access to super computers to do simulations or what not. It just doesn't make sense to me that they take that position.

Thanks for speaking out for the non high energy physicists!!

Patrick said...

I wonder if this will be the last Nobel to go to Bell Labs. What other candidates are left?

Don Monroe said...

One of the published guess lists included Seiji Ogawa as a candidate for the Medicine Nobel for his role in inventing functional MRI while at Bell Labs. Another possibility would be gravitational lensing for former Bell Labs researcher Tony Tyson. Current Bell Labs member Bob Willett (Doug's postdoc adviser) got the McMillan prize for the even denominator fractional quantum Hall effect, and has recent experiments suggesting the excitations in these states may be nonabelian, but that still needs to be nailed down. And that doesn't include possible decades old technology prizes like this one.

JS said...

Doug, thanks for your comments on the immaturity of denigrating research on/in engineering by the larger Physics community. With a Physics undergrad and masters in (Applied) Physics who completed the doctorate in EE, I can not only attest that this perception exists in the Physics community, but also in the engineering research community. There are very smart members of the latter group who I've known to state that they are somehow intellectually inferior to physicists, and they then wonder could be the reason they do engineering research. So this immature perception could even be causing self-esteem issues for the engineering research community :)

Ψ*Ψ said...

I'd much rather share my Nobel with engineers than biologists.

Anonymous said...

"I'd much rather share my Nobel with engineers than biologists."

Ok, this is probably a joke, but I've heard physicists denigrate biologists in a similar manner before.

I know some biologists who are at least as smart as, if not smarter than, many physicists. Many (though I guess not all) are as quantitative as any other physicist working in a biologically-related field. Why can't we just agree that all science is hard and people are operating at the limits of what the human mind and technology can manage?

Steve said...

The question is what the Nobel committee decides the prize should be about (and whether we agree). There are plenty of important technology/physics advances that could potentially be recognized --- and the original intent of the will certainly gave this latitude. (It also said that the discovery should be made within the previous year, which has been duly ignored ever since -- which shows that it really comes down to whatever the committee decides they want to do). However, in recent years by far MOST of the prizes have been for "fundamental" physics advances, and not for technology advances which sets a precedence for what they think it is supposed to be about and then this does look so consistent with that interpretation. (The integrated circuit prize was another recent exception --- but one that I think was more agreed upon as being a universal game changer that needed to be recognized).

Don: Minor correction. I don't think Bob got the McMillan prize. Here's the list of winners


But he did win the Buckley prize for composite fermions, but that was a decade later.

Don Monroe said...

Thanks, Steve. You're right: I mixed up the two prizes. Thanks for the correction.

By the way, I've posted some more thoughts on the engineering/physics question on Midgaard.

Charles Day said...

The CCD was crucial in determining the structure of the ribosome---work that one this year's Nobel chemistry prize.

And that's not my opinion. The Nobel chemistry committee mentioned the CCD and third-generation synchrotron sources in their detailed writeup.

Anonymous said...

You know, there ought to be a website, or maybe just a section on Wikipedia, that is devoted to tracing the interconnections among various enabling ideas, techniques, and technologies. I have in mind something roughly analogous to the Mathematics Genealogy Project.

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