Nobel winners strut their light stuff

In my view, Kao’s work has had such a significant worldwide impact that Kao truly deserves a whole Nobel for himself.

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In my view, Kao’s work has had such a significant worldwide impact that Kao truly deserves a whole Nobel for himself.

By Jeff Bairstow

For once, that august and perennially secretive body formally known as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Institute finally got their cumbersome act together and awarded this year’s Nobel Prizes in Physics to three practical-minded scientists–all either native-born Americans or possessing dual citizenship and all still living, if barely.

Nonetheless, the choosing of Nobel nominees and award-winners is shrouded in such secrecy as to make the process rank right up there with the directing of a typical Swedish movie, as performed by Ingmar Bergman. No one knows the members of the various selection committees, who the prize candidates are, and the exact nature of the selection process. There is more actual transparency in the selection of a Pope. This is not a reality TV talent show, folks.

Often regarded as the most prestigious awards in their respective fields, the Nobel prizes are endowed by generous funds from the estate of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish explosives manufacturer. Awards have been made annually since 1902, except for the war years.

The nomination and selection of Nobel candidates is highly secret–in fact, the selection of members of the nominating committees is equally private. No one knows who was nominated and, later, no one knows who fell by the wayside, so to speak. Even more interesting, there appear to be no leaks in the blogosphere, either before or after selection of the winners. That’s testimony to Swedish character, I guess.

But back to the 2009 Nobels. Half of the prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.4 million) will go to Charles K. Kao, 75, for his work in fiber optics in the mid-1960s at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories (STL) in the UK. By radically improving the purity of the fibers, Kao showed that transmissions of a mile or more were possible. The rest is history, as they say.

Today, nearly a billion kilometers of fiber-optic cables span the world. In my view, Kao’s work has had such a significant worldwide impact that Kao truly deserves a whole Nobel for himself. But then, I was not invited to join the selection committee. Nor could I lobby the Nobel committee for a personal favorite.

As a matter of fact, I do have a suggestion for a candidate for a Nobel prize: Dr. Ajay Bhatt of Intel, co-inventor of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) and star of a brilliant but brief commercial on PBS. You can check him out on You-Tube. But, that’s another story.

The remaining half of this year’s prize money will be shared between two veteran Bell Laboratories researchers, Dr. George E. Smith, 79, and Dr. Willard S. Boyle, 85. These two engineers invented the charge-coupled devices now very widely used as light sensors in consumer and professional digital cameras and industrial imaging systems. The fabulous images produced by the Hubble Space Telescope were generated by large CCD’s.

Although it’s highly unlikely that the winners knew much about their putative prizes, nominations came from a very select anonymous group of physics VIP’s worldwide. But we are not permitted to see how the voting proceeded. In fact, the actual voting records are held in sealed boxes for 50 years. I should live so long!

Announced in early October, the prizes will actually be presented on December 10 at an elaborate formal reception and dinner ceremony in Stockholm. The prizewinners often seem rather uncomfortable in such elegant surroundings.

Dr. Smith, an avid sailor who recently navigated his sailboat around the world, modestly said, “I’m 79 years old right now. And I don’t think my life is going to change much. I don’t even need a bigger boat.”

But you know he could have put his name down for a Ferrari Testarossa sports car and roared off into the Swedish sunset. Hey, there’s nothing in the Nobel Prize rules that says you have to give any of the loot to your research lab where you have spent the last 50 years with your nose firmly placed on the grindstone.

Just kidding, Alfred, just kidding!

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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