Re: [asa] physics nobels

From: Randy Isaac <>
Date: Tue Oct 06 2009 - 14:05:36 EDT

Sorry, the image of that chart may not have come through. This is a repeat posting with a URL instead of the image imbedded.

Some of us who worked in the IT field aren't quite as disappointed in this subtle shift of the Nobel prizes. While I fully agree with George that we need more emphasis on "work in fundamental physics that actually corresponds to reality", it is also good to see that good physics that leads to a tremendous impact in the world is recognized as well. I was quite thrilled with this morning's announcement. Permit me to make a few observations. First, regarding the optical fiber part. When I was giving technology overview talks for IBM, one chart I liked to show was this one:

The Nobel prize was for the original discovery that led to making optical fibers viable at all. Interestingly, by around 1990 the value of optical fiber for communication was so clear and well known that the global telecommunication industry planned for and implemented a global network of optical fibers, with many a trans-oceanic fiber laid down. The planning was based on projected need and projected capability, which was less than the blue line in the chart above. They never saw two inventions coming: erbium doped fibers and amplifiers which greatly enhanced data rates, and wavelength division multiplexing (WDM), the green line in the chart, which amplified capability by orders of magnitude. These innovations contributed to the glut of capacity and the collapse of the telecommunication industry around 2000.

The second part of the Nobel prize was for the invention of charge-coupled devices (CCD). When I started at IBM, we had an effort trying to determine if this might be viable for computer memories. We tried various schemes but it was soon clear that it wouldn't be competitive. The CCD's then became critical for imaging and have been dominant ever since. Until now. In this last decade, with low cost being more important than quality, cameras began to turn to CMOS sensors. They were much much cheaper but not as good quality. The volumes shot up as cell phones incorporated CMOS sensors and the cheap camera market exploded. Then an interesting development happened. CMOS sensors took a foothold in the very high end. Even though the sensors aren't quite as good as CCD, it was possible to integrate CMOS circuitry that would do image processing in real time. The net result was superior performance over CCD. So ironically, as the Nobel prize is given, CCD technology is being squeezed from the low end for pricing and the high end for quality.

For what it's worth,


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: George Murphy
  To: ASA list
  Sent: Tuesday, October 06, 2009 10:15 AM
  Subject: [asa] physics nobels

  The Nobel Prize in Physics this year has been awarded for work related to digital photography & fiber-optic networks
  ( With no disrespect to the work of the 3 people who are sharing the prize, it seems to me significant that in recent years it seems more & more to be given to work that is essentially in technological applications rather than fundamental physics. This is not entirely new -
  some of the physics prizes in the early 20th century were given for things like color photography & coastal lighting. But what it suggests today is the paucity of really important work in fundamental physics that actually corresponds to reality. For all the work that's been done in string theory & its extensions over the past ~25 years, it isn't remotely close to getting a prize.


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Received on Tue Oct 6 14:06:47 2009

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