Nobel Prizes for 2009 were announced last week. As is often the case, there was controversy, notably concerning the Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama. I've known, or at least met, a number of Nobel laureates. In columns in October 2003, I noted the awarding of a shared Nobel Prize to Paul Lauterbur for his work on the MRI. I also mentioned the controversy that ensued when Raymond Damadian and his supporters took out full page ads in the New York Times and other papers claiming that Damadian should have gotten or shared in the award. I had met Lauterbur at a celebration of an anniversary of the founding of the chemistry department at the University of Pittsburgh, where I did my graduate work. I sat beside him at dinner and had no idea who he was until he was introduced as one of the honorees. This was before he won the Nobel Prize.
Ten years ago, on October 5, 1999, I posted a column (see archives) in which I discussed attending a celebration in 1997 at Bell Labs of the 50th anniversary of the invention of the transistor. That invention, of course, changed the world forever and resulted in Nobel Prizes for Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and William Shockley. "Bill" Shockley was the first person to whom I was introduced by my department head upon reporting for work in 1952. In 1953, another "Bill", Willard S. Boyle, came to Bell Labs and would occasionally join our group for lunch in the cafeteria. Years later, when I became a supervisor in the development area of Bell Labs, Boyle was my executive director.
In that 1999 column, I mentioned talking with Boyle and another former Bell Labs colleague, George E. Smith, at the transistor celebration and saying that I couldn't understand why they had not received the Nobel Prize for their invention, the charge-coupled device or CCD. Last week, on October 6, I was watching the NBC evening news when Brian Williams flashed pictures of the three winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics on the screen. I was delighted to see Bill and George were two of the awardees, ten years almost to the day, after my 1999 column was posted. Boyle is now 85 and Smith 79, both fortunate to have lived long enough to receive what is arguably the ultimate scientific accolade.
Whereas Barack Obama received his Nobel Prize after only months in office, it took 40 years from the time Boyle and Smith came up with the CCD on October 17, 1969. Now the CCD is everywhere, in cameras, bar code readers, medical imaging devices, scanners, fax machines, etc. - virtually anything having to do with images. Longtime readers of this column may suspect that, for me, you could forget about all those applications in our everyday lives.
It's the exploration of the universe that the CCD has opened up with its presence in almost every space and major land-based telescope, as well as in spacecraft orbiting planets and rovers wandering around on the surface of Mars. The Hubble has returned fantastic pictures of our universe and, of course, employs CCDs to get those pictures. Just this week there was a wonderful program on Nova dealing with the recent repairs in space on the Hubble and the problems the spacewalkers encountered in successfully restoring the Hubble, even enhancing its capability to reach farther out into space.
For a more thorough description of the CCD you can click on the archives section and read the column of ten years ago. To oversimplify, consider the CCD to be a bunch of individual pixels of silicon lined up in row upon row, with each pixel able to capture any photon that strikes it. Each photon knocks an electron loose from the silicon, thus creating a charge. The more photons that strike the pixel the higher the charge. Every so often, say 50 times a second, the charge from each pixel, pixel by pixel and row by row, is measured and stored. With various filters the pixels can be made to register different colors/wavelengths and the charge information stored to generate the beautiful images of all sorts of celestial objects or scenes on the Martian surface, just to name a few applications.
Lest you think that Nobel Prize winners are just nerds that sit around in their ivory towers, Boyle, born in Canada and now living in his native Nova Scotia, flew Spitfires for the Royal Canadian Navy in World War II and Smith, after retiring from Bell Labs, spent many years travelling around the world with partner Janet Murphy in their 31-foot sailboat. I remember talking with Smith about getting stranded somewhere, I seem to recall it was Israel, when he became deathly ill from some malady on one of these voyages. Unfortunately, I missed a talk on their travels that the two of them gave at a meeting of our Old Guard group before I became a member.
I was amused to read in the October 7 Star-Ledger, which had a lengthy article on George Smith by Amy Ellis Nutt, that Smith is now working hard at scanning a thousand or so pictures from his travels. He wishes that they had had a digital camera with CCDs when they were sailing hither and yon. One imagines that at least his scanner has CCDs to convert those filmed images to digital format.
When the Nobel prizes were announced I received emails from a number of former Bell Labs colleagues suggesting we get together for lunch and toast our former colleagues with appropriate libations. In the course of the email exchanges something disturbing was called to my attention. This Nobel Prize in Physics has also aroused controversy. On the Nobel Prize Web site, the award citation for Boyle and Smith reads "for the invention of an imaging semiconducting circuit - the CCD sensor". One of the emails called my attention to a letter submitted to the New York Times by Eugene Gordon, another Bell Labs guy. I don't know if the letter was published but it questioned strongly the award to Boyle and Smith and suggested that if anyone should get the award it was a member of Gordon's group, Michael Tompsett.
Well, this week we had our lunch and who should be there but Tompsett, whom I had never met. An Englishman, he was a pleasant chap and certainly didn't rant and rave about the Nobel matter. However, he did call our attention to a news item posted by Sam Moore on the IEEE Web site on October 8. (IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a prestigious engineering society.) The report was headlined "Nobel Controversy: Former Bell Labs Employee Says He Invented the CCD Imager". Tompsett has a patent on "Charge transfer imaging devices". Also on the IEEE site is another report by Sam Moore posted October 12 headlined "Nobel Controversy: Eugene Gordon Claims He Gave Smith The Idea for the CCD".
Well, I was not involved in nor was I aware heretofore of any controversy concerning the CCD history. I'm not going to elaborate on the arguments in the two reports; the headlines tell the essence of the articles. At the time of the invention of the CCD I was involved in the development of the gallium phosphide LEDs and my group was supplying a department in Gordon's area with material for its device work. We had our own serious controversies and I prefer to assume that all the players in this Nobel controversy are honorable men with honest differences. The seven of us at lunch certainly did not resolve those differences. I think one of us summed things up nicely by saying words to the effect that, whoever deserves the credit for the invention, this Nobel Prize is a tribute to the people and the organization of the old Bell Labs when it was truly the preeminent research and development institution on the world (may it rest in peace!).
Actually, much of the time at our lunch was spent discussing not Boyle and Smith, but Charles Kao, who shared half the Nobel Prize with them. (They each got a quarter of the $1.5 million while Kao got half.) Kao got his piece of the prize for his work on fiber optics. I don't know how widely the Verizon TV commercials are aired but in our part of the country every half hour there's a FIOS commercial touting the merits of Verizon's fiber optic system for TV, internet and phone. There was a lot of work at Bell Labs on fiber optics, some of it key to purifying and controlling the properties of glass to make it transparent enough to allow light of whatever wavelengths to travel long distances. One of the lunchers was in the same department where that fiber work was going on and when he heard of Kao getting the prize, he questioned the award. However, on reflection, he concluded that Kao did deserve the prize for being the person who promoted the idea to use optical fibers for communication.
Incidentally, one of our lunch group was working in Pittsburgh at the Mellon Institute when the aforementioned Paul Lauterbur was there. While working there on the MRI idea, Lauterbur was having trouble with periodic interference with his electrical signals. He finally traced the trouble to the passing streetcars. Pittsburgh had a superb streetcar system in those days. Sadly, they were replaced by buses.
Finally, on the day I saw the pictures of Boyle and Smith on the TV screen I was reading the September 25 issue of Science and saw an item about another person I knew getting a prestigious award. John Goodenough at University of Texas shared the $375,000 Enrico Fermi Award from the Department of Energy for the development of the lithium cobalt oxide cathode of the lithium-ion battery. Goodenough was also involved in the development of other promising cathode materials for these batteries. I met John when we were both instructors/lecturers in a NATO course in Erice, Sicily back in 1988. So far as I know, there isn't any controversy about his contribution.
Oh, the award to Goodenough was announced by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner in 1997 for work begun (where else?) at Bell Labs!
Next column to be posted on October 29.
Allen F. Bortrum