The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has chosen to award half of the roughly $1.5 million Nobel Prize in Physics to Charles Kao “for ground-breaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication” and the other half to Willard Boyle and George Smith “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit—the CCD sensor.” Average citizens may never have heard of the recipients, but they are almost certainly familiar with the fruits of the laureates’ labor. Optical fibers help deliver signals from around the world to telephones and computers, and charge-coupled devices (CCDs) lie at the heart of most digital cameras. Many have thrilled at the images of astronomical objects taken by CCD cameras aboard satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope.

All three of the physics Nobelists did their seminal work in telecommunications laboratories nearly 40 years ago, when many industries maintained strong R&D efforts. Kao was...

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