Prizes for optical fibres, charge-coupled devices, ribosomes and telomeres

HOW do you look through a window that is 100km thick? That, in essence, was the question facing Charles Kao in 1966. For working out the answer, Dr Kao has been awarded part of this year’s Nobel prize for physics. Besides being thick, the window was narrow: it was an optical fibre. Dr Kao’s prize is a belated recognition of his contribution to the telecommunications revolution of the past few decades. But better late than never.

The rest of the physics prize goes almost as belatedly to Willard Boyle and George Smith who, in 1969, ushered the charge-coupled device (CCD) into being, paving the way for the digital camera. The chemistry prize went to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath for working out the structure of ribosomes—the parts of living cells that translate genetic information into proteins. And the physiology prize went to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their work on telomeres, the DNA caps that stop the ends of chromosomes either unravelling or sticking to one another. …

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