Among the modern-age inventions which have reshaped and revolutionized the world we live in today, fiber-optic communication holds a special place. In this small, fast and globalized world the ability to transfer information freely and to have instant access to knowledge, that would have been difficult or almost impossible to obtain previously, has largely been facilitated and ushered in by fiber-optic communication working in tandem with the all-pervading digital revolution.
Information holds the key today and there has been a radical shift from traditional industry to an economy controlled, created and driven by an information-empowered society termed information society.
The man behind this ground-breaking technology Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany is an Indian born American physicist whose invention of fiber optics made more than half a century ago revolutionized the way information is transmitted and communicated today. It is because of his pioneering work that the world today enjoys high speed communication and medical procedures such as endoscopy and laser surgeries.
Born in Moga in Punjab on 12 October, 1926, Kapany was a precocious child. The seeds of his future work in fiber optics were sown in a physics lecture in which his teacher taught that light always travels in a straight line. This prompted the young boy to wonder why couldn’t light travel along a bent path and spurred him to think over it and prove his teacher wrong.
Kapany graduated from Agra University and then went to Imperial College London for advanced studies in optics where he earned a Ph.D. degree in physics from the renowned college in 1955. He subsequently moved to the University of Rochester and then to the Illinois Institute of Technology to continue his research and inventions in the areas of fiber-optics communication, lasers, biomedical instrumentation, solar energy and pollution monitoring.
An optical fiber is a slender glass fiber that is thinner than a human hair but flexible and transparent. It can carry signals over long distances at higher bandwidths (data rates) with much less loss in intensity of the transmitted signal compared to the loss in the same in metal wires. It also makes the signal immune to electromagnetic interference and increases transmission rate to nearly the speed of light. Quoting Joseph Kahn, a Stanford professor and a leading specialist in optical fiber communication, fiber optics is a miraculous technology, and the internet couldn’t exist in its present form without it.
Kapany commenced his pioneering research in fiber optics at the Imperial College London while working with Harold Hopkins, an English physicist. He demonstrated for the first time in 1954 at its Department of Physics that light can travel in bent glass fibers. His research paper entitled ‘A Flexible Fiberscope Using Static Scanning’ appeared in the seminal scientific journal Nature in the January issue of the same year. He published over 100 scientific papers in various international science journals and established the term fiber optics. His work led to the development of such medical devices as gastroscope, endoscope and bronchoscope. For this critical and early work in fiber optics and communication, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany is widely credited as the Father of Fiber Optics.
Dr. Kapany has been honored with many awards for his path-breaking work. He received the Excellence 2000 Award from the USA Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce. He is a fellow of the British Royal Academy of Engineering, the Optical Society of America, and American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was awarded with the Pravasi Bhartiya Samman by the Indian Govt.
Dr. Kapany is not only a physicist but a businessman, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a sculptor all rolled into one. He founded Optics Technology Inc., Kaptron Inc., and K2 Optronics undertaking research and innovation in the field of fiber optics. He specialized in the process of management of technology and technology transfer through his entrepreneurial ventures.
Kapani has been an active philanthropist in education and the arts. He was instrumental in the founding of the Sikh Foundation and donated 5 million dollars to the Asian Arts Museum of San Francisco.
The year 2009 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Charles Kao for his breakthrough work in fiber optics. This surprised Nobel watchers and created a buzz in the scientific circles at Dr. Kapany’s omission from the coveted list. It is well known that it was Dr. Kapany who pioneered the early works in fiber optics and demonstrated how it heralded a new technology era. His work was crucial to further research into the field and was done way before Kao started his own work on transmission of light over long distances via optical glass fibers and yet Nobel Committee chose to ignore him.
An unsung hero, Dr. Kapany is not alone as others before him have been ignored by the Nobel Committee as well, a classic example being that of Mahatma Gandhi. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it was the Nobel Committee which missed out on the father of the nation. Today even at the age of 85, Dr. Kapany continues to work in his quest for invention of a better technology and inspire us with his achievements in the field of science.
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