Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

I’ll admit it … I’m a bit of an Anglophile. When I was 14 I started saving pennies in an old Band-Aid tin in the hopes of traveling to England someday. I finally got there when I was 29, just before I got my wisdom teeth pulled.

So I’m planning to rise incredibly early tomorrow, for at least long enough to switch on the second-hand VCR (it didn’t come with a remote control, so I can’t program it). But while I watch the magnificent splendor of the wedding of the future king of Great Britain, I will be thinking of the Brits who made it possible for us billions of worldwide viewers to see the ceremony progress in real time.

First of all, as everyone who’s ever cracked open a science-fiction novel knows, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) dreamed up the concept of a geostationary communications satellite in 1945, long before any country on Earth had the ability to launch an “artificial moon.” Though famously a resident of Sri Lanka for more than half of his life, Sir Arthur was born in England and studied mathematics and physics at King’s College London.

Back in the 1960s, Sir Charles Kao, then working at the U.K.’s premier industrial telecommunications laboratory, got

silica fibers courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

silica fibers

the idea for using fiber optics to transmit data. Kao was born in Shanghai, but his family moved to Hong Kong (then British) when he was a teenager, and he earned his Ph.D. at University College London. Kao and his British lab colleagues worked hard to study the structural and material properties of optical fibers, and then Kao became something of a scientific evangelist, advocating for the adoption of single-mode fiber and predicting that the world’s oceans would be crisscrossed by cables five years before the first transatlantic telecom cable was installed. He was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009.

So, whether the images of the lovely Kate and the dashing Prince Wills arrive at your “telly” via satellite or optical cable, you have someone with a British education to thank.

Incidentally, OSA’s first president from outside North America was a Brit — Sir Peter Knight of Imperial College London. Besides Imperial, several U.K. universities have distinguished programs in optics and photonics, including the University of Southampton — and William and Kate’s alma mater, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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