Digital images, such as this one of the Eagle Nebula from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope, are possible due to one of this year's Nobel prize winning inventions, the charge-coupled device. The other winning discovery led to the widespread use of the technology transmitting this image: fiber optics. [Credit: Smithsonian Institution, flickr.com]
This year the Nobel Committee in Physics honored three “masters of light,” Charles Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, whose work led to the invention of the cables that transmitted these words to your computer and the cameras that captured the image on your screen. Kao’s discoveries led to today’s widespread use of fiber optics, while Boyle and Smith invented the charge-coupled device, which is responsible for capturing light in digital cameras. The importance of these discoveries is obvious—can you imagine a world without high speed internet or the ability to instantaneously post pictures from last night’s party? But their significance was much less clear when they were made in the late 1960s. In fact, according to The New York Times, Boyle and Smith initially wanted to construct novel electronic memory rather than an imaging device.
But wait—those of you intimately acquainted with Alfred Nobel’s will might wonder—how can the committee honor discoveries made in the ’60s that clearly violate Nobel’s criterion that awards should go “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”? This isn’t the first time a Nobel Prize has been bestowed for a discovery made much earlier than “the preceding year.” And it appears the time from initial discovery to its Nobel acknowledgment has generally increased since the first prize in 1901.
So why the discrepancy? As with this year’s honorees, it took some time for their discoveries’ “benefit on mankind” to be realized. Also, the committee may have wanted to avoid awkward controversies such as the one surrounding the 1938 award, in which Enrico Fermi was recognized for his 1934 “discovery” of transuranic elements, only to be disproved the following year. Best to give these conclusions a little time to be vetted to avoid eating crow.
Whatever the reason, the spirit of Nobel’s intention has still remained intact, as it’s difficult to deny that this year’s winners have made a fundamental impact on our world. But to all the physicists doing seminal work today—learn some patience. It might be a little while before you get your turn.