Chemistry Nobel, yes, but what about Physics?

Kapany 1951

India-born American scientist Venkataraman Ramakrishnan may have bagged the chemstry Nobel, but the “East or West, West is the Best” policy of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has deprived India of another Nobel.

The prize for physics announced on Tuesday, October 6, recognises the work of Charles Kao for his contributions to fibre optic communications but leaves out Narinder Singh Kapany who laid the basis of Kao’s work a decade earlier by inventing fibre optics.

Kapany thus lands is in the illustrious company of Jagdish Chandra Bose, Satyendranath Bose, G.N. Ramachandran and E.C.G. Sudarshan among others who were also ignored or bypassed by the learned society of mysterious ways.

For a whiff of Kapany’s work, read excerpts from Shivanand Kanavi’s article ‘Beyond Valuations’ from Business India, September 17-30, 2001.


Through the fibre glass


With his hearty laughter and easygoing nature, the ebullient Dr Narinder Singh Kapany reminds you of a neighbourhood innkeeper. But his appearance misleads. Kapany, at 74, has launched a start-up, K20ptronics, which makes tunable lasers and other components for optical networking.

The firm hopes to commercialise products based on state-of-the-art Dense Wave Division Multiplexing technology, patented by Kapany. However, not many people know that Kapany also launched what was perhaps the first hi¬tech Indian start-up in the US in 1960–when Silicon Valley’s poster boy, Sabeer Bhatia, was not even born.

Kapany’s unassuming manner does not indicate that he had demonstrated, for the first time 50 years ago, that light could be sent through glass fibre. His path-breaking project, as a PhD student at Imperial College in London, led to his being called the “father of fibre optics”.

“From my high-school days, the idea of bending light around the corner was rattling in my brain,” he says. “When I was at Imperial College in 1951 to take an advanced course in technical optics, I discussed it with my professor, who added some ideas of his own and took it to the Royal Society, which gave me a scholarship to do a PhD.”

Why the fuss about bending the path of light? The reason is that light normally travels in a straight line. But when light moving through air enters another medium, such as water or glass, part of it bends and is transmitted, while the rest is reflected. When the angle of incidence is more than a certain critical angle, light gets totally reflected at the interface.

Thus, if light has entered a totally internally reflecting pipe, it will be transmitted along the pipe, even if the pipe is bent into various contortions. British scientist John Tyndall had shown in the 19th century that light can travel through a jet of water, even if it’s curved. This effect is used in fountains, in which a coloured light source at a fountainhead gives the impression that different coloured water is springing from the fountain.

However, nobody had succeeded in using glass fibre to transmit light and images. There was even the fear that even if it were possible to pass light through the medium, the signal might suffer a loss on the way and not come out at the other end of the fibre. But Kapany was bent on trying just that.

Born in 1927 in Moga, Punjab, Kapany was brought up in Dehradun where his father had settled after retiring from the Royal Air Force. Armed with a BSc in physics, Kapany joined the local ordnance factory. Here he gained experience in designing and making optical instruments. In 1951, Kapany got the chance to study optics at the University of London, and grabbed it.

Testing his ideas in a laboratory experiment, however, was not easy. He had to get glass fibre drawn. So he went to the then famous Pilkington Glass Company, where he learned how to draw glass fibre to make glass fabric such as fibreglass. The optical quality of the glass was not important to the firm at all.

“I took some optical glass (optical glass is pure glass with no bubbles or any kind of impurity) and requested the company to draw some fibre from it. I also told them what I was going to use it for, and they humoured me,” recalls Kapany. However, what Pilkington sent a few months later were spools of fibre, made of green glass meant for beer bottles, which was very fragile and almost opaque.

“I spent months making bundles of fibre and trying to shine light at one end to see if I could see it at the other end, but no light was coming out. That was because it was not optical glass. So, I had to cut the bundle to short lengths and use strong light from a carbon arc source and finally I was able to demonstrate it in 1952-53,” he recalls.

By 1955, Kapany completed his doctorate and was all set for a return to India. However, the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester in the US drew him. He decided to go to the US for “one year”, and this eventually stretched to nearly 50 years. After Rochester, he went to the Illinois Institute of Technology near Chicago to head the Optics Department. “I did a lot of exciting work there for four years, but did not want to live in Chicago, he says, “So, I came to California and started my first company in 1960 called Optics Technology.”

Lasers were hot technology at that time. Charles Townes had just demonstrated a Ruby Laser and Ali Javan was building the first helium-neon laser in Bell Labs. Kapany demonstrated that Ruby Lasers could be used for eye surgery. “I made lasers for eye surgery and optical filters and other instrumentation. I took it public in 1967. They were crazy times like we had here in the Valley last year. We were very successful,” recalls Kapany.

In 1973, Kapany started another company called Kaptron, built it up and sold it to AMP. This made optical connectors for FDDI (fibre distributed data interface) “I stayed there 10 years as an AMP fellow and developed a number of new technologies and products for them. I left them a year-and-a-half ago and started the present company, K2Optronics. Last year we got two rounds of funding, totalling $42 million. We are making DWDM components, tunable lasers and so on. We specify what we need and buy the chips and produce very high quality lasers for Metropolitan and Access networks. We have some cutting-edge special designs for lasers, which is patented technology. We have a fairly aggressive programme,” says Kapany about his latest venture.

How does he view the multi-billion dollar industry his inventions have spawned? “In every place a number of friends come up and say accusingly, ‘see what you have done,” he guffaws. Kapany has taught in Stanford, Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, and has published over 100 research papers, besides hold¬ing over 125 patents and four books.

Besides optics, Kapany is interested in promoting Sikh heritage and culture. His collection of Sikh art has done the rounds in several museums around the world. He is also a patron of the Sikh Foundation in the Silicon Valley, which he founded in 1967. He has generously donated to academia to create a chair in Sikh studies at the Univer¬sity of California at Santa Barbara and a chair for optoelectronics at UC Santa Cruz.

Besides playing with light, Kapany’s hobby is sculpture, and he has had several exhibitions of his work. Kapany visits India almost every year and is a keen observer of the fibre optics scene here.