Charles Kuen Kao, Nobel Laureate in Physics Who Revolutionized Fiber Optics, Dies at 84

Dr. Kao at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1996. He founded the university’s Department of Electronics in 1970.
Chinese University of Hong Kong, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Charles Kuen Kao, a Nobel laureate in physics whose research in the 1960s revolutionized the field of fiber optics and helped lay the technical groundwork for the information age, died on Sunday in Hong Kong. He was 84.

His was confirmed by the Hong Kong-based Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease, which he and his wife, Gwen Kao, founded in 2010. The foundation declined to specify a cause but said that Dr. Kao learned he had the disease in 2002.

Working in Britain in the late 1960s, Dr. Kao and a colleague played a crucial role in discovering that the fiber optic cables in use at the time were limited by impurities in their glass. They also outlined the cables’ potential capacity for storing information — one that was far superior to that of copper wires or radio waves.

“The word ‘visionary’ is overused, but I think in the case of Charles Kao, it’s entirely appropriate because he really did see a world that was connected, by light, using the medium of optical fiber,” said John Dudley, a researcher in fiber optics based in France and a former president of the European Physical Society. “And I think society today owes him a great deal for that work.”

In the early 1960s, light pulses carrying telephone and television signals could travel only about 20 meters, or about 65 feet, through glass fibers before nearly all the light dissipated. But by 1970, four years after Dr. Kao and the British engineer George Alfred Hockham published a landmark study on the subject, a group of researchers had produced an ultrapure optical fiber more than a half-mile long.

Fiber optic cables, which look like fishing wire, later enabled the proliferation of broadband communications, biomedical informatics and countless other digital applications. When Dr. Kao shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences estimated that the optical cables in use worldwide, if unraveled, would equal a fiber more than 600 million miles long.

“It’s one of these things where, when you study technology, you start working on one thing, and the impact of it just fans out into all sorts of areas,” Dr. Dudley said by telephone.

He added that it might have taken decades for Dr. Kao to receive the Nobel Prize because the importance of his work was not apparent to the general public until the 2000s.

Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory, said in a statement on Sunday that Dr. Kao’s work on fiber optics had made a “tremendous contribution to Hong Kong, the world and mankind.” She added that he had also played a prominent role in shaping local higher education and scientific research.

“An eminent figure, Professor Kao is the pride of Hong Kong people,” Ms. Lam said.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Mike Ives