Nobel-winning science sometimes touches on subjects as remote as the big bang and the weird world of quantum physics, but this year's Nobel Prize for physics celebrates breakthroughs that are as close as your cellphone and computer keyboard.
Two of the laureates, Willard Boyle and George Smith, will split half of the $1.4 million prize for their work 40 years ago on a little thing called the charged-coupled device, or CCD. Such devices are arrays of tiny solar cells that turn light into electricity. The trick that Smith and Boyle (no close relation to me, by the way) came up with was a way to read out the signals from all those cells in an orderly string, and then translate the strings of data into a picture.
The innovation opened up a new realm of digital imagery – a realm that you travel through every time you snap a picture with your cell-phone camera or click through a Flickr album. To get an idea how far that realm has come since 1969, click through this roundup of the latest camera crop. Digital imagery from CCD-equipped spacecraft has opened up even more wondrous realms beyond Earth. The technology came into vogue too late for the Voyager and Viking spacecraft, which used TV-style cameras called vidicons. But NASA's Galileo probe to Jupiter, launched in 1989, pioneered CCD applications for robotic spacecraft. Today, virtually every astronomical picture ever taken comes to us thanks to CCDs – ranging from the pictures sent back from Saturn as part of the $3.4 billion Cassini mission to the experimental near-space images that an MIT student team took for less than $150. Our latest roundup of the greatest space images puts the fruits of Boyle and Smith's labors on full display.