Canadian-born physicist named as Nobel prize winner
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Tuesday, October 6, 2009 10:04PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 18, 2012 11:58PM EDT
A Nova Scotia-born physicist who invented the Charge-coupled device 40 years ago has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics along with two American scientists.
Willard S. Boyle, along with Charles K. Kao and George E. Smith, won the US$1.4 million prize on Tuesday.
Boyle and his wife were woken at 5 a.m. by a phone call, purportedly from Sweden, and at first they assumed it was a prank.
"And then I began to realize, boy, if those guys put a trick on us, they've done a lot of work," he told CTV News, laughing.
The Shanghai-born Kao was honoured for his groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication, while former Bell Labs colleagues Boyle and Smith were honoured for inventing the imaging semiconductor circuit -- also known as the CCD sensor -- that is today used in cameras, camcorders, telescopes and other devices.
"We were working with the expectation that we'd do something useful," he said.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said all three have American citizenship, though Boyle is also Canadian and Kao is also a British citizen.
The work of the three men is "something that has really changed our lives," said Joseph Nordgren, chair of the academy's physics committee. "The impact on science is enormous."
Talking to CTV's Canada AM after his win was announced on Tuesday, the 85-year-old Boyle said his phone was ringing off the hook at his Halifax home.
"The phone is ringing steadily, we've had calls from all over the world," he said during a telephone interview, noting that only one of his four children had been able to get their calls through.
Boyle was born in Amherst, N.S., in 1924. Home-schooled until he was in high school, he eventually went on to earn a doctorate from Montreal's McGill University.
Boyle said that much of his eventual academic success stemmed from the education he received at home.
"I think a lot of the credit for the fact that I was able to go into McGill eventually and go into honours maths and physics, and pass the various courses, was due to my mother," he said during a telephone interview from Halifax on Tuesday morning.
In 1953, he joined Bell Labs, where he worked for much of the next three decades.
Between 1962 and 1964, he was director of Space Science and Exploratory Studies at the Bell labs subsidiary of Bellcomm, where he provided support to the Apollo space program and helped select lunar landing sites.
Boyle returned to Bell Labs in 1964, where he and his co-Nobel winner Smith would later invent an imaging semiconductor circuit -- better known as the Charge-coupled device, or CCD.
"We invented a device which processes light," Boyle said, explaining the concept behind CCD. "In the way that the transistor processes sound, our CCD chip processes light -- it detects it, stores it, transmits it and enables a person to use it."
But back in 1969, Boyle didn't know how significant the CCD would be.
"I think we had hopes that perhaps it was going to be useful as a sensor in cameras, but we just thought of it as a generic device that might have some applications," Boyle said. "But it didn't take very long, actually, before the various universities with their astronomy departments started using it in telescopes. And that was really the big breakthrough, I think."
The invention is used in many different areas, including in the medical field where surgeons now use the CCD in exploratory surgery, Boyle said.
In a separate interview with the academy, Boyle said he is reminded of the impact of his work with Smith "when I go around these days and see everybody using out little digital cameras, everywhere."
And he said he was proud of the images transmitted so Earth from Mars, something that "wouldn't have been possible without our invention."
Boyle retired 30 years ago and moved back home to Nova Scotia, where he served on the research council of the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research and the Science Council of the Province of Nova Scotia.
With a report by CTV's Todd Battis and files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press