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The Miracle of Digital Imaging

Madden offers a telling example of the CCD’s exquisite sensitivity: “One of the CCD cameras that we built here we put in a dark room, all the lights out, all the doors shut, so if you went in there it’d be pitch black, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We took a picture of this pitch-black room, and what we saw was sort of a grainy picture of the room. You can detect individual photons. If there were more light in there you would basically see a picture of the room like a regular photograph, but a CCD is so sensitive that single light photons are detectable. That’s what’s really remarkable about it.”

While astronomy might be the main beneficiary of such extreme light sensitivity, the CCD’s attributes make it indispensable to other applications as well. In medical imaging, it’s used in diagnostic radiology and to provide real-time pictures during surgical, endoscopic, and other procedures (many of which also use the optical fiber technology of 2009’s third physics Nobelist, Charles Kao). Biologists and chemists obtain data on individual cells and molecules with advanced microscopic techniques such as X-ray crystallography.

And, of course, there are the everyday commercial applications: our cameras, camcorders, webcams, and iPhones. (Some consumer electronic devices, such as cell phones, now use a newer technology called CMOS, for complementary metal-oxide semiconductor. While cheaper to manufacture and much less energy intensive than CCDs, CMOS chips are also much less sensitive and produce lower-quality images.) Although photography has been generally available for about a century, it’s hardly a stretch to assert that the unprecedented versatility, flexibility, and ubiquity of digital imaging technology is continuing to change our world in countless ways, from YouTube videos and cell phone pictures to the ability to touch up, change, or completely alter images through software such as Photoshop. Commercial and personal photography has become almost wholly digital, as the technology’s continuing and ever increasing sophistication has nullified practically all the lingering aesthetic and technical arguments in favor of film.

Because of the CCD, pictures have become commodified information to be stored, manipulated, and moved from place to place through the Internet or other communication technologies, created and distributed at the speed of light with the ease of a straying thought. The positive effects of this development (the ability of private citizens to capture newsworthy events on camera) and the negative (goofy YouTube videos and embarrassing cell-phone shots), utterly new in human history, are still being debated and determined. But digital images are not going to fade like Kodachrome slides—they’re here to stay.

The idea of magnetic memory bubbles burst not long after the invention of the CCD, supplanted by hard-disk and random-access technology and the other memory devices that have since been invented. Now 85, Boyle retired from Bell in 1979 and returned to his native Nova Scotia, while Smith, now 79, went on to sail the world for 17 years after his own retirement in 1986, finally returning to his home in New Jersey. Throughout the years they’ve received numerous awards and accolades for their work, but although their names had been mentioned more than once for an eventual Nobel (particularly given Bell Labs’ extraordinary score of seven such awards), that particular honor had always eluded them. As Boyle says, “Just because so many people around us had been winning Nobel Prizes, we sort of said, ‘Well, our stuff is reasonable. It’s possible, you know, we’ll get something here, I don’t know!’ We hoped for the best, but nothing had happened and so we’d pretty well dismissed it.”

That all changed forever on this past October morning. But even if the Swedish Academy had continued to overlook their achievement, the place of Willard Boyle and George Smith in history would be secure. The product of their skull session on that fall day in 1969 has fundamentally changed the way we see each other, our world, and the universe.