HONG KONG — Charles Kuen Kao, a Nobel laureate in physics whose research in the 1960s revolutionized the field of fiber optics and helped lay the technical groundwork for the information age, died on Sunday in Hong Kong. He was 84.
His was confirmed by the Hong Kong-based Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease, which he and his wife, Gwen Kao, founded in 2010. The foundation declined to specify a cause but said that Dr. Kao learned he had the disease in 2002.
Working in Britain in the late 1960s, Dr. Kao and a colleague played a crucial role in discovering that the fiber optic cables in use at the time were limited by impurities in their glass. They also outlined the cables’ potential capacity for storing information — one that was far superior to that of copper wires or radio waves.
“The word ‘visionary’ is overused, but I think in the case of Charles Kao, it’s entirely appropriate because he really did see a world that was connected, by light, using the medium of optical fiber,” said John Dudley, a researcher in fiber optics based in France and a former president of the European Physical Society. “And I think society today owes him a great deal for that work.”
“‘远见卓识’这个词被过度使用，但我认为对于高锟，这个词完全合适，因为他确实看到了一个以光纤为媒介、通过光来连接的世界，”现居法国的光纤研究者、欧洲物理学会(European Physical Society)前主席约翰·达德利(John Dudley)说。“我认为今天的社会拜他的工作所赐良多。”
In the early 1960s, light pulses carrying telephone and television signals could travel only about 20 meters, or about 65 feet, through glass fibers before nearly all the light dissipated. But by 1970, four years after Dr. Kao and the British engineer George Alfred Hockham published a landmark study on the subject, a group of researchers had produced an ultrapure optical fiber more than a half-mile long.
60年代初，移动电话和电视信号使用的光脉冲，通过玻璃纤维只能传播约20米，之后几乎所有光线就将耗尽。但到了1970年，在高锟和英国工程师乔治·阿尔弗雷德·霍克汉姆(George Alfred Hockham)发表关于这一主题的里程碑研究四年后，一组研究人员生产出超过半英里长的超纯光纤。
Fiber optic cables, which look like fishing wire, later enabled the proliferation of broadband communications, biomedical informatics and countless other digital applications. When Dr. Kao shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences estimated that the optical cables in use worldwide, if unraveled, would equal a fiber more than 600 million miles long.
光缆看起来像是钓鱼线，后来正是它令宽带通信、生物医学信息学和无数其他数字应用技术得以普及。当高锟于2009年与他人一起获得诺贝尔物理学奖时，据瑞典皇家科学院(Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)估计，全球使用的光缆如果拆开，相当于一根超过6亿英里（约合9.7亿公里）长的光纤。
“It’s one of these things where, when you study technology, you start working on one thing, and the impact of it just fans out into all sorts of areas,” Dr. Dudley said by telephone.
He added that it might have taken decades for Dr. Kao to receive the Nobel Prize because the importance of his work was not apparent to the general public until the 2000s.
Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory, said in a statement on Sunday that Dr. Kao’s work on fiber optics had made a “tremendous contribution to Hong Kong, the world and mankind.” She added that he had also played a prominent role in shaping local higher education and scientific research.
“An eminent figure, Professor Kao is the pride of Hong Kong people,” Ms. Lam said.
Charles Kuen Kao was born in Shanghai on Nov. 4, 1933, to a wealthy family, according to an autobiographical sketch published by the Nobel Foundation. His father, Kao Chun Hsin, was a judge, and his grandfather, Kao Hsieh, had been a Confucian scholar active in a movement to bring down the Qing dynasty during the Chinese Revolution of 1911.
Dr. Kao described his early life in Shanghai as “very pampered and protected.” His family moved to Hong Kong when he was 14, on the brink of China’s Communist Revolution of 1949, and at 19 he sailed to England to study electrical engineering at Woolwich Polytechnic, now known as the University of Greenwich.
高锟形容他在上海的早年生活“备受呵护”。他的家人在他14岁时移居香港，不久后1949年的中国共产主义革命就到来了，19岁时他乘船前往英国，在现称格林尼治大学(University of Greenwich)的伍利奇理工学院(Woolwich Polytechnic)学习电气工程。
Dr. Kao would later admit that he had not been the most diligent university student. “In those days the degrees were awarded as a First, Second, Pass or Fail,” he said. “As I spent more time on the tennis court than with my books, my degree was a Second.”
After graduation, he joined a British subsidiary of International Telephone & Telegraph, and spent the next three decades working for the company in Britain, Europe and the United States. It was during his stint in England that he met his future wife, Gwen Wong, a fellow engineer who worked on an upper floor.
毕业后，他加入了英国国际电话电报公司(International Telephone & Telegraph)的子公司，并在接下来的30年里，为公司在英国、欧洲和美国工作。他在英格兰工作期间遇到了未来的妻子黄美芸，她是在他楼上工作的工程师同事。
In their landmark paper on fiber optics in 1966, “Dielectric-Fiber Surface Waveguides for Optical Frequencies,” Dr. Kao and Dr. Hockham noted in their conclusion that “a fiber of glassy material” and certain dimensions “represents a possible practical optical waveguide with important potential as a new form of communication medium.”
Dr. Kao received a half share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics; the other half was split between Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, both affiliated with Bell Laboratories at the time. They had invented a semiconductor sensor known as the charge-coupled device, the device behind digital photos and film.
高锟与人分享了2009年诺贝尔物理学奖；奖项另一半由威拉德·S·博伊尔(Willard S. Boyle)和乔治·E·史密斯(George E. Smith)获得，两人当时都隶属于贝尔实验室(Bell Laboratories)。他们发明了一种称为电荷耦合元件的半导体传感器，也就是用于实现数码照片和电影的设备。
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that the work by all three men had collectively “built the foundation to our modern information society.”
Dr. Kao was knighted in 2010 and received an honorary degree from Princeton and many awards from engineering associations across the world. He was a professor and later vice chancellor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he founded the department of electronics in 1970.
Dr. Kao is survived by his wife and two children, Amanda and Simon, who live in the United States, a spokeswoman for his Alzheimer’s foundation said.
“As one of the last wishes of Professor Kao, our foundation will keep up our work in supporting people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families,” Mrs. Kao, the foundation’s chairwoman, said in a statement.
Dr. Kao said in the autobiographical sketch that his scientific breakthrough had not resulted from a “eureka” moment but rather from years of trial-and-error experiments. “Transmission of light through glass is an old, old idea,” he wrote.
“I think it was a very respectable bit of detective work as well as good theory and good fundamentals,” he said of his contribution to the fiber optics field. “So there was really nothing spectacular.”