Tag Archives: Silicon

An Exa-Prize for “Masters of Light”

Holy Swedish silica/on. It’s an exa-prize!

Calling them “Masters of Light,” the Royal Swedish Academy awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics to Charles Kao, for discoveries central to the development of optical fiber, and to Willard Boyle and George Smith of Bell Labs, for the invention of the charge-coupled device (CCD) digital imager.

Perhaps more than any two discoveries, these technologies are responsible for our current era of dramatically expanding cultural content and commercial opportunities across the Internet. I call this torrent of largely visual data gushing around the Web the “exaflood.” Exa means 1018, and today monthly Internet traffic in the U.S. tops two exabytes. For all of 2009, global Internet traffic should reach 100 exabytes, equal to the contents of around 5,000,000 Libraries of Congress. By 2015, the U.S. might transmit 1,000 exabytes, the equivalent of two Libraries of Congress every second for the entire year.

Almost all this content is transmitted via fiber optics, where laser light pulsing billions of times a second carries information thousands of miles through astoundingly pure glass (silica). And much of this content is created using CCD imagers, the silicon microchips that turn photons into electrons in your digital cameras, camcorders, mobile phones, and medical devices. The basic science of the breakthroughs involves mastering the delicate but powerful reflective, refractive, and quantum photoelectric properties of both light and one of the world’s simplest and most abundant materials — sand. Also known in different forms as silica and silicon.

The innovations derived from Kao, Boyle, and Smith’s discoveries will continue cascading through global society for decades to come.