Two people talking to each other across a city or a continent – doing business locally or globally, accessing home entertainment from anywhere – all these today are channelised through slender bundles of glass fibres thinner than human hair that carry the signals or images at nearly the speed of light. The seeds for this miracle started taking shape nearly 60 years ago in the mind of a young Punjabi student, who today lives in Palo Alto. Questioning his professor’s dogmatic statement that ‘light travels in a straight line,’ it set him off on his own voyage of discovery that led him to pioneer the science and technology behind fibre optics. That Punjabi student, Narinder Singh Kapany, is the ‘father of fibre optics’ as we know it today. And despite his path-breaking work he remains largely an unsung hero, bereft of Nobels and other such laurels. Here is his story for you to read …
Talking of Nobels and particularly in Physics, Indians for long have been getting the shorter shrift in recognition for their seminal works. Worth mention here are a few who deserved it more than many who did get it. J C Bose is a typical example. At the turn of the century in 1895, he was the first to demonstrate wireless signalling. Sir Neville Mott, Nobel Laureate for Physics in 1978, opines Bose had foreseen the ‘n’ and ‘p’ type semiconductors and was at least ‘sixty years ahead of his time.’
Another Bose – Satyendranath, sends his paper on the statistics of quanta of lightphotons to Albert Einstein, who in turn lauds it and gets it published in Die Zeitschrift der Physik in 1924, which in turn gave birth to the famed Bose-Einstein statistics and the term ‘Bosons’ for all elementary particles come within its ambit. Though three Nobels have so far been awarded for works based on Bose statistics, the originator of the idea was never considered. Likewise, take G N Ramachandran whose work on bio-molecular structures and specially the triple helical structure of collagen is more than noteworthy, as is the remarkable work of George Sudarshan, whose pioneering contributions to Quantum Optics and coherence are exceptional. But their work too remains ignored till date.
This trend came to the fore again in 2009, when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded ‘one-half’ of the Nobel for Physics to Charles K Kao ‘for ground breaking achievements concerning transmission of light in fibres for optical communication.’ What the Academy forgot to mention was that Narinder Singh Kapany, widely considered the ‘Father of Fibre Optics,’ had by far a stronger claim. The name of this pioneer of fibre optics too, thus, is now appended to the rather long list of Indians, who despite richly meriting the ultimate accolade, have all been mysteriously passed over by the august members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in their best wisdom.
Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany is an Indian-born American physicist whose invention of fibre optics more than six decades ago revolutionised the way we transmit information and communications today. It is thanks to his pioneering work that we enjoy not just the high speed communications we all so depend upon, but also many of the minimally invasive medical procedures like endoscopy and laser surgeries that save innumerable lives.
Born in Moga in Punjab on 12 October, 1926, Narinder grew up to be a precocious child, with tonnes of curiosity and a keen inquiring mind. The seeds of his destiny were sown during a physics lecture, where he was taught in school that light as a rule travels in a straight line, kindling young Narinder’s questioning mindset – why couldn’t light travel along a bent path? This thought bugged him no end and spurred him to think over and over again until he found an answer that satisfies him.
Narinder proved to be good in studies, and went on to graduate from Agra University. Post graduation he went to work for a spell with the Ordnance Factory, Dehradun, before taking up advanced studies at the Imperial College London in optics that earned him a Ph.D. in physics in the year 1955. Subsequently he moved to the US, first to University of Rochester and then to the Illinois Institute of Technology, continuing his research – coming up with a whole bevy of and inventions fields like fibre-optics communication, lasers, biomedical instrumentation, solar energy and pollution monitoring.
Optical fibres are slender cable-like tubular glass fibres that are thinner than human hair but flexible and transparent. They can carry signals over very long distances at humongous data rates, with very marginal loss in intensity compared to conductive metal wires like copper. They also make the signal immune to EMI and push up the transmission rates to nearly the speed of light.
Narinder Singh Kapany’s pioneering research in fibre optics began at the Imperial College London while working with Harold Hopkins, an English physicist. It was here that he for the first time in 1954 succeeded in demonstrating that light can indeed travel in bent glass fibres, answering his own enquiry that began in that school in Dehradun. Says Kapany: “When I was a high school student at Dehradun in the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, it occurred to me that light need not travel in a straight line, that it could be bent. I carried that idea to college. Actually it was not an idea but the statement of a problem. When I worked in the ordnance factory at Dehradun after my graduation, I tried using right-angled prisms to bend light. However, when I went to London to study at the Imperial College and started working on my thesis, my advisor Dr Hopkins suggested that I try glass cylinders instead of prisms. So I thought of a bundle of thin glass fibres that could be bent easily. Initially my primary interest was to use them in medical instruments to look inside the human body. The broader potential of optic fibres did not dawn on me till 1955, which was when I coined the term ‘fibre optics’.”
Kapany was trying to use a glass fibre as a light pipe or, technically put, a ‘dielectric wave guide’. But drawing a fibre of high optical quality free of impurities was a tough job. Kapany went to the Pilkington Glass Company, manufacturer of glass fibre for non-optical purposes. “I took some optical glass and requested them to draw fibre from that. I also told them that I was going to use it to transmit light. They were perplexed, but humoured me. A few months later Pilkington sent spools of fibre made of green glass, which is used to make beer bottles. They had ignored the optical glass I had given them. I spent months making bundles of fibre from what they had supplied and trying to transmit light through them, but no light came out, as it was not optical glass. So I had to cut the bundle to short lengths and then use a bright carbon arc source.”
Kapany was confronted next with another problem. Naked glass fibre did not guide light well. Due to surface defects, more light was leaking out than he expected. So to transmit a largish image he needed a bundle of fibres containing several hundred strands – but contact between adjacent fibres led to loss of image resolution. Some fellow physicists suggested cladding the fibre as a solution. Cladding, when made of glass having refractive index lesser than the core reduced leakages and also prevented damage to the core. And at long last, Kapany was successful – he and Hopkins published their results in 1954 in a research paper entitled ‘A Flexible Fibrescope Using Static Scanning,’ which appeared the same year in the seminal British journal Nature.
Since then, Dr. Kapany has untiringly continued working in his field of interest, and has over 100 scientific papers to his credit in various international science journals. He is also credited with bringing the term ‘fibre optics’ into popular parlance, and indeed, it is his pioneering and innovative work that has led to the evolution and development of such advanced medical devices as the gastroscope, endoscope and bronchoscope. These immense contributions in the domains of fibre optics and communications have thus rightfully earned Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany the sobriquet, ‘Father of Fibre Optics.’
Dr. Kapany, 90 years old now, is quite a multifaceted person with active interest in multiple endeavours. Not merely a physicist par excellence, he is also a successful entrepreneur and businessman, philanthropist, and a sculptor all rolled into one. He is the founder of ‘Optics Technology Inc.’, ‘Kaptron Inc.’, and ‘K2 Optronics,’ a research and innovation firm in the field of fibre optics. He is also a specialist in the process of technology management and transfer through his entrepreneurial ventures.
As a philanthropist, Kapany has been active in education and the arts. For over 30 years now, he has been serving society through various trusts and foundations of his founding. He is a major founder and funder of the Sikh Foundation, and has bequeathed US$ 5 million for establishing an art gallery in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, to displaying works he has donated from his collection of Sikh art. Dr Kapany is renowned as much for his philanthropic endowment and promotion of Indian arts as he is for his contribution to optical fibre technology. He was a prime mover for the internationally much acclaimed ‘Arts of the Sikh Kingdom’ exhibitions to which he has also donated generously, which began at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, moving on to San Francisco later. As an artist, Dr. Kapany has created 40 “dynoptic” sculptures, which were first displayed in 1972 as a one-man show at the Exploratorium of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Since then, this collection has been viewed at museums and art galleries in Chicago, Monterey, Palo Alto, and Stanford.
When the Nobel in Physics for ‘ground breaking achievements concerning transmission of light in fibres for optical communication’ was awarded to Charles Kao in the year 2009, Dr. Kapany’s omission from the coveted list surprised many Nobel watchers no end and created a big buzz in scientific circles, as it was a very well known fact that it was Dr. Kapany who pioneered the early works in fibre optics and demonstrated how it heralded a new technology era. His work was more than crucial to further research into the field and all this was done way before Kao started his own work on transmission of light over long distances via optical glass fibres but yet the Nobel Committee had chosen to ignore him.
As an unsung hero, Dr. Kapany is not alone in facing this slight – many others before him have been ignored by the Nobel Committee as well, and outside of physics, the most classical example would be Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. And yes, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it was the Nobel Committee which missed out on the father of the Indian nation. Dr. Kapany even to this day at the ripe old age of 90, continues to work in his quest for a better technology and inspires us with his achievements in the field of pure and applied science.
Even if the Nobel evaded him, Dr. Kapany can take solace in the myriad other honours that come his way in recognition of his path-breaking work – the ‘Excellence 2000’ Award from the USA Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce for instance. A respected fellow of the British Royal Academy of Engineering, the Optical Society of America, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany is also a recipient of India’s highest award conferred on diaspora, the ‘Pravasi Bhartiya Samman’ Award.