Canadian, Willard Boyle, Wins Nobel Prize for Physics (and Divine Geekery)

The Nobel Prizes are pretty cool. But this morning when I read that a Canadian won the Nobel Prize for Physics for discovering the CCD, I totally geeked out.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare that this is in fact the most geek-friendly Nobel Prize ever.

Typically the Nobel for Physics is given out for some interesting but mind-bending esoteric concept, like last year’s award for Broken Symmetry. But this year the award went to three scientists for two very practical discoveries – both having to do with light and communication. Charles Kao won for his ground-breaking work in fiber optics (simply put, by increasing glass quality he improved the transmission in fiber-optic lines by more than 40 times) which is indutiably geeky-cool. Hello? Internet! (And a bajillion other practical uses.) But as the other half of the prize went to a Canadian, Willard Boyle, which he shared with George E. Smith, it’s not only geeky-cool, but it’s Canadian geeky cool.

Probably if you are the right flavour of geek (gadget geek, film geek, photography geek, computer geek – yeah there’s a lot of overlap there) you know what a CCD (No, not Common Core Data or Colony Collapse Disorder.) is and how ubiquitous it is. But for the non-geeks and wrong-flavoured geeks; the CCD is the acronym for “charge-coupled device” which is the essential piece of doo-hickery at the core of how digital cameras work. (You can skip the pedantry, I know many devices actually use CMOS chips instead of CCDs.) From where I sit now I can count five devices that I use regularly that utilize them.

This video comes to you courtesy of the very discoveries that the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for.

I can thank CCDs for making film-making accessible to anyone for (relatively) cheap. If it weren’t for that I would never have had an opportunity to get into the industry. (Hence an extra level to my excitement about this.)
Heck – the high-end digital film-making that is turning celluloid into a dinosaur a little more each day? CCDs are responsible. This past year’s Best Picture Oscar winner – the first digitally shot film to win the prize, Slumdog Millionaire probably would not have been producable without CCD technology making the cameras small and versatile enough to shoot in Mumbai. Without CCDs there would have been no Star Wars Episodes I, II & III… okay, so every technology gets used for evil at some point.

That little eye on your laptop staring back at you – the webcam? CCD.

Your digital camera, whether it’s a consumer-level point and click or an SLR? CCD.

Same with your cell-phone camera.

Astronomers can thank CCDs for images from the Hubble Space Telescope; Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Phoenix Mars Rover.

Security cameras; spectroscopes; microscopy; bar-code scanners; endoscopic cameras; fax-machines, photocopiers & document scanners? You get the picture. (Ba-dum-ching!)

So… feel some Canuck pride on this one. Willard Boyle, our sixteenth laureate, has truly changed the world in easily perceived ways.

- Kennedy

Boyle (Left) & Smith (Right), showin’ off their mojo.

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  • Kennedy Goodkey

    Kennedy is a film-maker and skeptic. As a skeptic his primary interests are in the communication and advocacy of skeptical and science issues, specifically calling attention to the idea that the standard practice of “playing nice with others” is not always the best approach, and definitely must be explored and refined as a tactic to be leveraged to best effect.