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Net age pioneers win physics Nobel

Stockholm, Oct. 6 (Reuters): A pioneer in fibre optics and two scientists who figured out how to turn light into electronic signals — work that paved the way for the Internet age — were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for physics today.

Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born British-American, won half the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.4 million) prize for a discovery that led to a breakthrough in fibre optics, determining how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibres.

Willard Boyle, a Canadian-American, and George Smith of the US shared the other half for inventing the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor.

“This year’s Nobel prize in physics is awarded for two scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies,” the Nobel committee said in a statement.

Their achievements have allowed vast amounts of information to be sent around the globe almost instantaneously, as trillions of signals make their way through glass fibres now long enough to encircle the planet more than 25,000 times.

Boyle, raised over the phone to address a news conference at the Nobel committee in the Swedish capital, sounded dazed. “I have not had my morning cup of coffee yet, so I am feeling a little bit not quite with it all. But I have this lovely feeling all over my body, like ‘Wow, this is really quite exciting, but is it real?’” he said.

Kao’s work on fibre optics in 1966 formed the basis for the production of the first “ultrapure” fibre four years later, setting the stage for the communication society of today.

“These low-gloss glass fibres facilitate global broadband communication such as the Internet,” the committee said. “Text, music, images and video can be transferred around in the globe in a split second.”

A large chunk of the traffic is made up of digital images, which is where Boyle and Smith come in. In 1969, they invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor. “It revolutionised photography, as light can be captured electronically instead of on film,” the committee said.

The work by Boyle and Smith, both employed by Bell Laboratories before retiring more than 20 years ago, led to progress in areas as diverse as microsurgery and space exploration.

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