The father of optic fibre


Well, I’m going to join the thousands of well-wishers, and express my excitement on Professor Charles Kao’s obtaining the Nobel Prize in Physics.

I’ve worked under four Vice-chancellors since joining CUHK, and Kao is the one I’ve admired, respected, and actually liked, the most. Although he received his university education and doctorate, and worked for a long time, in the West, he had always come across to me as a perfect example of the ‘gentleman’ in Confucius morality. For example, he never relied on flamboyant rhetoric in speaking. In fact, he was not a very articulate speaker. He did not strategise to get what he wanted: he simply led by example. He demonstrated to us the attributes of a real scholar: no political games, no unsubstantiated publicity; do the hard work, throw yourself wholeheartedly into your academic discipline. He didn’t need carrots or sticks, yet you would want to work harder because of him. He was a most open-minded person. That was why he never saw the need to reprimand those radical students who treated him impolitely at meetings with students.

From newspaper reports in the last few days, I realized that thousands of other people had in fact been gnawed by the same query for years: How come he still hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize. When I found out that it was optic fibre that made broadband possible, and it was Kao who invented optic fibre, I thought: Wow this is the greatest invention in the twentieth century! Think about all the scientific and technological leaps that have become possible in the last two decades because of the Internet (and because of optic fibre). Think about all the things we can now do on the Web which were unimaginable just only twenty years ago! (As I have said before, I was born in the age of no computers and no Internet. So I was able to witness the huge impacts they had brought on human life.)

When Internet connection first came about, it was through telephone lines. And the catchphrase of the first half of the nineties was 56K connection. And because Internet traffic was so slow, surfing the Web in those days was a test of patience. (But to be fair, at that time, people were totally fascinated with 56K connection already.) If you want to imagine what it was like browsing a web page before the mid-nineties, picture yourself fiddling with an ATM machine: it is all-linear; slow; and text-only. (Mouse’s hadn’t been invented because there was no need for them.) Today, Internet connection has gone up to 1000M, and this is possible because of optic fibre.

So, all those students taking my CALL course at CUHK, take note of this: Without Professor Charles Kao, there would be no optic fibre. Without optic fibre, there would be no broadband. Without broadband, there would be no Web 2.0. Without Web 2.0, at least two-thirds of the global computer-assisted language learning we have today would not have come about. And the key figure in the technological backdrop is a man called Charles Kao. And Charles Kao was once the Vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.


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