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Fiber Optic Pioneers Win 2001 Marconi Award in Telecommunications

By Suzanne Trimel

Herwig Kogelnik

Herwig Kogelnik of Bell Laboratories and Allan Snyder of the Australian National University, pioneers in the development of fiber optic technology, will share the 27th annual Marconi International Fellowship Award for work that has revolutionized modern telecommunications. The $100,000 award by the Marconi Foundation at Columbia University honors advances in telecommunications and information technology for the public good and is the foremost prize in this field.

In recognition of Drs. Kogelnik's and Snyder's achievements, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia will host a discussion on trends and discoveries in optical technology and the coming revolution in photonic crystals by the two honorees on Dec. 4 at 4:00 p.m. in the Davis Auditorium of the Schapiro Engineering Center. This event is open to the public.

Kogelnik and Snyder have been at the forefront of discoveries in optical technology, now the dominant means of long distance telecommunications. The Internet, which has so greatly transformed our lives, is based on packets of laser light transmitted along hair-thin quartz fibers. "Much of this transformation is attributable to the creativity demonstrated by the two honorees," said John Jay Iselin, president of the Marconi Foundation. The work of the two men also is leading developments in optoelectronics. Scientists predict that semiconductors of light – like the electronic semiconductors that are at the heart of all computers and other devices – could lead the information and telecommunications revolution still further by enabling higher-capacity optical fibers, nanoscopic lasers and photonic integrated circuits to one day replace today's microchips.

The Marconi award is given in memory of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless transmission and the developer of institutions devoted to it. Columbia's engineering school is the academic home of the Marconi Foundation, which was created in 1974, 100 years after Marconi's birth. Since then, the Foundation has been identifying eclectic innovators in telecommunications whose work has benefited humanity. Past winners include James Killian, former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lord Asa Briggs of Oxford, historian of the BBC and head of the University of Sussex, and in 2000, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, inventors of public key cryptography.

The 2001 Marconi Foundation award marks the centennial anniversary of the first wireless signal in Morse code to be transmitted across the Atlantic. At the age of 27, Marconi sent the first wireless waves from Poldhu in Cornwall to a receiver in Signal Hill, St. John's, in Newfoundland.

Allan Snyder

In his 40-year career at Bell Laboratories, Kogelnik has made fundamental contributions to developments in laser technology, optoelectronics, photonics and lightwave communications systems. In a series of papers in the early 1960s, he developed the theory of stable optical resonators, which has been fundamental to laser developments ever since. He then turned to the applications of holograms to optical systems, developing with some of his colleagues the basic theory of thick holograms that led to the development of a whole range of optical components, including filters and couplers to integrated optical devices. His innovation was the beginning of the "distributed feedback laser," which has turned out to be of absolutely critical importance to the development of optical telecommunications. Born in Austria and educated there and in England, Kogelnik is the recipient this year of the prestigious Medal of Honor from the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers. He holds 35 patents.

Snyder's key contributions laid the foundations for three totally different areas of science: optical fiber telecommunications, visual photoreceptor optics and futuristic light-guiding-light technologies. His design of a range of devices essential to the operation of the telecommunications network has enabled millions of miles of fiber optic cable to be laid around the globe. Born in Philadelphia and educated in the United States and England, Snyder began his research in the mid-1960s on how visual photoreceptors in the human retina transmit light images in the brain. At the time, he had no particular interest in telecommunications but noticed the similar transmission properties of both photo receptors and optical fiber.

Recently featured as one of Australia's ten most creative minds in The Bulletin/Newsweek, his scientific discoveries have gained worldwide attention and are the subject of a recent BBC documentary, "Fragments of Genius." He has been acclaimed in the scientific and research community and beyond, receiving the 1997 International Australia Prize from the Prime Minister of Australia. Snyder is head of the Optical Sciences Centre at Australian National University and director of the Centre for the Mind, a joint project between Australian National University and the University of Sydney, where he and his colleagues study creativity and mindset breaking, inspired by their research on the astounding abilities of autistic savants. Their work has led to such discoveries that all of us possess the mental machinery for performing lightening fast arithmetic – in our head without setting pencil to paper. On Dec. 10, Snyder will deliver the distinguished Clifford Paterson Lecture to the Royal Society in London in which he will describe the ultimate prize in photonics research, virtual circuitry – a transparent cube of material with a myriad of interconnections and components created by light alone.

"Allan Snyder's pioneering contributions to optical communications based both on a masterful command of the mathematical basis as well as an extraordinary powerful physical insight represent a unique and multi-faceted achievement," said Martin Meyerson, Chairman of the Marconi Foundation.

The Marconi Fellows are selected by a panel of judges chaired by Sir Eric Ash of the Royal Society, a Marconi Fellow, and including Professor Gabrielli Falciasecca, president of the Marconi Foundation/Bologna; Dr.Robert Kahn, president, Corporation of National Research Initiatives; Dr. Charles Kao, chairman, Itx Services Ltd. of Hong Kong; Professor Yash Pal of Noida, India, and Dr. Andrew Viterbi, president, Viterbi Group of San Diego.

Published: Nov 30, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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