Hong Kong Chinese scientist gets Nobel Prize in Physics
Born in Shanghai, Kao was rewarded for his pioneering work in fibre-optic communications, which he began 40 years ago and which underpins today’s information superhighway and internet.
Kao’s “groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication has shaped the foundations of today's networked societies,” the Nobel jury said in a statement.
“If we were to unravel all of the glass fibres that wind around the globe, we would get a single thread over one billion kilometres long—which is enough to encircle the globe more than 25,000 times—and is increasing by thousands of kilometres every hour.”
When the announcement was made, the new Nobel laureate could not be immediately reached because he was out of town with his family.
When his name first appeared in the list of candidates he said, “The Nobel has never been given out for applied sciences before. This is very, very unexpected. Fibre optics has changed the world of information so much in these last forty years. It certainly is due to the fibre-optical networks that the news has travelled so fast."
Kao graduated from St Joseph's College in Mid-levels in 1952. He went to London to study electrical engineering and received a doctorate in the field in 1965.
As a young researcher in 1960s London, Kao competed with some of the most talented engineers of the time on how to transmit large amounts of information over long distances without losing too much data. Systems using microwaves, lasers and other mediums were proposed.
In 1966, Kao and research partner George Hockham presented a landmark paper proposing the use of optical fibres to transmit data through light pulses while maintaining high fidelity.
Their idea was initially laughed at by much of the engineering community, which looked on the pair with a high degree of scepticism, because manufacturing standards at the time limited the distance over which fibre optics could carry light. Light pulses could travel only a few metres before losing signal strength and therefore the data.
Kao's central insight was that the loss of data was due to impurities in the fibres. Once these imperfections were removed, there should be no limits on how far data could be sent without losing signals.
In 1970, manufacturers made their first breakthrough in making fibres so pure they could turn Kao's dream into reality.
Nicknamed the “father of fibre optics,” Kao headed Hong Kong’s Chinese University as vice-chancellor from 1987 to 1996. During his tenure, he helped turn the university into a powerhouse in engineering and science, a field long dominated by the much-older University of Hong Kong.
He gave up all official posts last year and early this year his wife confirmed he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Now everyone’s attention is on the Nobel Prize in Literature, which should be announced tomorrow. Dissident Chinese poet Bei Dao’s name is on the list.
In two days time, the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced and activist Hu Jia is in the running. He is currently serving a three-year sentence on subversion charges for criticising Chinese authorities.