From the announcement:
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. They have created many practical innovations for everyday life and provided new tools for scientific exploration.
Charles Kao determined how to transmit light signals over long distances in glass fibers. This led to an explosion in the field of fiber optics. For this to work, the glass has to be optically pure so that the light signal can travel hundreds of kilometers. Information is transmitted down these fibers by modulating the properties of the light waves. Fiber optics are responsible for your ability to read this blog entry (the internet) or to make long distance phone calls. If you want to learn more about how fiber optics work, check here.
Willard Boyle and George Smith invented the technology that enabled our ability to transmit digital images. From the announcement:
invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor, a CCD (Charge-Coupled Device). The CCD technology makes use of the photoelectric effect, as theorized by Albert Einstein and for which he was awarded the 1921 year's Nobel Prize. By this effect, light is transformed into electric signals. The challenge when designing an image sensor was to gather and read out the signals in a large number of image points, pixels, in a short time.
As you can see this technology has revolutionized the way that we record everyday life in images. Almost everyone these days has a digital camera. When I was a kid, we were amazed at a polaroid picture that developed before our eyes. Now, the image appears instantly on the screen of your camera. How cool is that? But this technology is also used in medical imaging that allows amazing looks into the human body without cutting it open. And all those incredible images of the deep universe from the Hubble telescope? Yep, made possible by the invention of Boyle and Smith.
I learned an interesting side note about Willard Boyle on an NPR story this afternoon. Boyle retired in his mid-50s because he had seen other co-workers at the Bell Labs lose their ability to create inventions as they aged. So, he retired and sailed his boat around the world with his wife for the next 17 years. Wow, what a life!
Congrats to Kao, Boyle, and Smith!