Thursday 15 October 2009

Narinder Singh Kapany: Missed Nobel for Fibre Optics

Nobel question mark
Dinesh C. Sharma
New Delhi, October 15, 2009

Most Indians may have never heard the name of Dr Narinder Singh Kapany.
However, it is due to his path-breaking invention of fibre optics made more than half a century ago that the world today enjoys high speed communication and medical procedures such as endoscopy and laser surgeries.

That's why when this year's Nobel Prize in physics was announced for transmission of light through fibre glass, Nobel watchers were surprised at the omission of Dr Kapany's name.
In its announcement, the Nobel committee noted that the award winning scientist, Charles K. Kao, had made a discovery in 1966 that led to a breakthrough in fibre optics. He calculated how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibres and his work led to the fabrication of the first ultrapure fibre in 1970.

But it was Kapany who had first demonstrated in 1954 at the Department of Physics, Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, that light can travel in bent glass fibres and even coined the word - fibre optics. His research paper entitled "a flexible fiberscope, using static scanning" appeared in scientific journal Nature in its January 2, 1954 issue. It was co-authored by his professor, Harold Hopkins. Kapany later coined the word 'fibre optics' in an article he published in Scientific American in 1960. His work led to development of medical devices such as gastroscope, endoscope and bronchoscope. All this work preceded the work of Kao, who has been awarded the Nobel this year.

It is for this pioneering work that Kapany has been widely regarded as the "father of fibre optics". The Wall of Inventions at the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology lists Kapany as the inventor of fibre optics and he was hailed by Fortune magazine in 1999 as one of the seven unsung heroes who have changed the face of the 20th century.

"Well, that's what the world says (that I am the father of fibre optics), but the Nobel committee has its own decision", Kapany said in a telephonic interview with Mail Today from his home in San Francisco.

Asked to comment on being ignored by the Nobel committee, Kapany said: "What can you say about this. It is known that Prof Kao started work in this field many years after me. He faced competition too… I don't think there should be any controversy about it. It is up to the Swedish Academy to decide. Whatever criteria they wanted to use, they have used."

Shivanand Kanavi - a physicist-turned author who documented Kapany's contribution in his book Sand to Silicon - said "in any discovery or invention, many people play a role and it would be wrong to say only one person did all the work. However, some people play a crucial role and show the way for further research. In the case of fibre optics, Kapany played such a critical role. There were others who had realised that glass cylinders or fibres could be used to transmit light, but Kapany was more successful than anybody else in solving the problems involved and scientifically demonstrating the same". Between 1955 and 1965, Kapany was the lead researcher in the subject and he published several papers.

In 1966, Charles Kao put forward the idea that glass fibres could be used for telecom and tirelessly evangelised it. "Kao richly deserves a share of the prize but it was based on the earlier pioneering work done by Kapany. So it is in the fitness of things that both Kao and Kapany share the prize," Kanavi said.

Kapany, who was born in Moga in Punjab, had his schooling in Dehradun - where seeds of his future work in fibre optics were sown. Kapany's teacher once told him that light always travelled in a straight line. This made the young boy think and he set out to prove his teacher wrong. He graduated from Agra University, worked for a brief while in an ordnance factory and then moved on to the Imperial College for doctorate in optics. In London, he worked for sometime at the Glasgow Optics Company.

He subsequently moved to the University of Rochester and then to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he continued his research and invented a string of technologies and devices in fibre-optics communication, lasers, biomedical instrumentation and solar energy. He has over a 100 patents to his credit.

At 82, Kapany continues to invent. "I keep working. Only last week I had applied for a patent related to solar energy systems," he said.
Courtesy: Mail Today