History's First Draft

The eyes of the world have moved to U.S. President Obama's surprising Nobel Peace Prize, but the controversies over the Physics prize just keep coming. And it's not just limited to CCD. As my colleague Sue Karlin pointed out to me in an e-mail, an Indian news site has raised questions about fiber optics.

We at Spectrum received our fair share of letters and comments about the half of the prize that went for the charge-coupled device. Our initial article "CCD Camera Chip Pioneers Share Nobel" by contributor Neil Savage led to a fruitful conversation between news editor, Sam Moore, and Michael F. Tompsett, an IEEE Fellow and one-time colleague of newly-minted Nobelists Boyle and Smith ("Nobel Controversy: Former Bell Labs Employee Says He Invented the CCD Imager") as well as a further discussion between Savage and Carlo Sequin, yet another Bell Labs CCD researcher ("Nobel Controversy: Who Deserves Credit for Inventing the CCD?").

Yesterday, Rediff.com published an exhaustive compendium of Nobel Prizes that arguably should have gone to Indian physicists, including:

. Jagadish Chandra Bose (wireless signaling before Marconi as well as anticipating the 'n' and 'p' type semiconductors);

. Satyendranath Bose (Bose-Einstein statistics);

. G N Ramachandran (bio-molecular structures, especially the triple helical structure of collagen); and

. E C George Sudarshan (quantum optics);

Which brings us to this week and "How India missed another Nobel Prize":

What the Academy omitted to note was that Moga, Punjab-born Narinder Singh Kapany, widely considered the Father of Fibre Optics, and, in this capacity, featured in a 1999 Fortune magazine article on the 'Unsung Heroes of the 20th Century', had far the stronger claim.
Charles Kao in a 1996 paper put forward the idea of using glass fibres for communication using light; he tirelessly evangelised it and fully deserves a share of the Prize. However, the fact remains that it was Kapany who first demonstrated successfully that light can be transmitted through bent glass fibres during his doctoral work at the Imperial College of Science in London in the early fifties, and published the findings in a paper in Nature in 1954.

The article is written by Shivanand Kanavi , who, according to his blog bio, is a theoretical physicist cum academic cum economic consultant cum business journalist. He's the author of a book, Sand to Silicon: The Amazing Story of Digital Technology, which he quotes from in making the case that Kapany deserves half of the half-prize that went for fiber optics.

Narinder Singh Kapany recounted to the author, "When I was a high school student at Dehradun in the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, it occurred to me that light need not travel in a straight line, that it could be bent. I carried the idea to college. Actually it was not an idea but the statement of a problem. When I worked in the ordnance factory in Dehradun after my graduation, I tried using right-angled prisms to bend light.
"However, when I went to London to study at the Imperial College and started working on my thesis, my advisor, Dr Hopkins, suggested that I try glass cylinders instead of prisms. So I thought of a bundle of thin glass fibres, which could be bent easily. Initially my primary interest was to use them in medical instruments for looking inside the human body. The broad potential of optic fibres did not dawn on me till 1955. It was then that I coined the term fibre optics."

Giving credit where it is due is hard. Kanavi does a good job of tracing the idea of bending light all the way back to the 1840s. In Savage's follow-up article Carlo Sequin teases out the contributions of six different Bell Labs researchers.

If journalism is, as the journalist Phil Graham once said, the "first rough draft of history," then the Nobel committee is in the uncomfortable position in between: trying to do a journalist's job with the full weight of historical accuracy on its shoulders. And so the current controversies have a silver lining: we get to read about the contributions of the many other brilliant researchers who contributed to these marvelous ideas and life-improving technologies.

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