Nobel winner 'knew he would shake the world'
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The wife of Nobel laureate Dr Charles Kao Kuen, the retired head of Chinese University, said her husband had predicted early in his research years that his work on optical fibre would shake the world one day.
Gwen Wong May-wan was delivering a speech at the Nobel lecture in physics at Stockholm University on behalf of her husband yesterday. Flanked by his children, Kao, who is afflicted by Alzheimer's disease, sat in the audience beaming.
Spelling out technical details and recalling the arduous journey Kao had in persuading sceptics of his groundbreaking technology, the speech - 'Sand from Centuries Past; Send Future Voices Fast' - was punctuated with anecdotes about their life together and jokes about their marital squabbling, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Recalling the hectic years before Kao published his seminal paper in 1966, proposing the use of optical fibres to transmit data, Wong said she got very annoyed with Kao always coming home late. 'Our children were small and dinner was waiting,' she said. Calming down his fuming wife, Kao said what he was doing was very exciting and would shake the world one day.
In response, Wong said she sarcastically asked Kao whether he would get the Nobel Prize one day.
'He was right. The world has been totally transformed because of optical fibre communication. Hundreds of millions of kilometres of glass fibre cables have been laid in the ground and in the ocean, creating an intricate web of connectivity that is the foundation of the World Wide Web.'
As Kao has Alzheimer's disease, the speech was a collaboration between Chinese University scholars and Wong. The title was hers, seeking to portray the inexhaustible and economical nature of silica, the raw material of glass. Cheung Kwok-wai, one of four Chinese University professors who drafted the speech, said: 'Optical fibres are made from burning sand at high temperature.
'People turned up their noses at his research at the beginning because glass made in this way contains many impurities that preclude data from travelling long distances.'
Even after the publication of the paper in July 1966, Wong said her husband still had trouble promoting his idea. 'Most of the world did not take notice, except for the British Post Office and ... Ministry of Defence, who immediately launched major research programmes.'
Wong said Kao travelled around the globe to spread his news. 'He said that until more and more jumped on the bandwagon, the use of fibres would not take off.'
The lecture was broadcast live at Chinese University. It attracted about 200 students and alumni. Chinese University vice-chancellor Professor Lawrence Lau Juen-yee and Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing opened an exhibition at the Science Museum yesterday in celebration of Kao's achievements.