Alumnus George E. Smith invents CCD sensor, 1969; receives Nobel Prize, 2009

Technology co-invented by 2009 Nobel laureate George E. Smith, SM'56, PhD'59, has profoundly changed consumer electronics and transformed the way astronomers at his alma mater observe the heavens.

Smith will receive a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics "for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit-the CCD sensor."

Digital cameras employ CCD (charge-coupled device) sensors as their electronic eyes, capturing images electronically rather than on film. Smith's 1969 invention with Nobel co-recipient Willard S. Boyle has transformed the daily lives of millions through digital photography, which has largely replaced images captured on film.

Smith and Boyle invented CCD technology in 1969 at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. They share half of the 2009 Nobel in physics. The other half went to Charles K. Kao of Standard Telecommunication Laboratories of Harlow, United Kingdom, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Kao "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communications."

The Academy hailed Kao, Boyle and Smith "for two scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today's networked societies."

CCD technology, which transforms light into electronic signals, also is used in telescopes to probe the universe, underwater cameras to explore the oceans, and for medical diagnostics and microsurgery. The technology has been especially critical to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a collaboration of 150 scientists at 25 institutions, including the University of Chicago.

CCD sensors are highly efficient, making it possible for telescopes to image dim sources in the distant universe. They are sensitive, able to detect far-red and infrared wavelengths, linear (scientists can use them to perform quantitative analyses) and digital (meaning that data go directly into a computer), said Richard Kron, UChicago Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Astronomers began to adopt CCDs for their instruments in the late 1970s. In those days, the small size of CCDs (centimeters in diameter) limited their application in comparison to much larger photographic plates, some of which measure 17 inches on one side.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey harnessed the technology as it developed. At the University of Chicago, Donald York, the Horace B. Horton Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, along with Kron and others, built a camera for the SDSS with an area of CCDs comparable to large photographic plates.

"This size enables coverage of large areas of sky, which in turn enables new science," Kron said. The SDSS made its first observations with the camera in 1998. "Such large CCD cameras are now becoming the rule on large telescopes."

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Smith received his master's and doctoral degrees in physics from the University of Chicago. He then spent his entire career at Bell Labs, retiring in 1986.

As a graduate student, Smith worked at the University's Institute of Metals, today known as the James Franck Institute.

Material scientists, physicists and chemists came together at the Institute for interdisciplinary inspiration after the Manhattan Project, said UChicago Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics.

"Bell Labs is a very similar sort of environment where you tie together strands from different fields," said Rosenbaum, who conducted research at Bells Labs from 1979 until 1982.

The announcement of UChicago's newest alumnus-laureate comes in the wake of Yoichiro Nambu's 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics. Nambu, the University's Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics, received half the prize last year "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics."

Smith brings to 29 the number of Nobel laureates in physics who worked or studied at UChicago as faculty members, students or researchers at some point in their careers.

"It is really amazing what our faculty and students achieve," said Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Physical Sciences Division. "Their work changes the world for the better in a truly historic manner, and the fact that this makes two physics Nobel Prizes in a row just serves to remind us of this."

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