Physics Nobel laureate Charles Kao dies after long battle with Alzheimer's

Top News | Jane Cheung 24 Sep 2018

Charles Kao Kuen - known as the "father of fiber optics" for his discovery in the 1960s of certain physical properties of glass - died yesterday aged 84.

The Nobel Prize winner passed away in Prince of Wales Hospital at 11.45am after fighting Alzheimer's disease for 17 years.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said yesterday: "Professor Kao was exceptionally talented and the pride of Hongkongers.

"He was the pioneer in inventing and applying fiber optics technologies and brought revolutionary changes to modern telecommunications, which brought huge contributions to Hong Kong, worldwide and the whole of mankind."

Born in Shanghai in November, 1933, Kao was raised in a well-off family with a high educational background who moved to Hong Kong in 1949.

His grandfather was a famous poet and painter towards the end of Qing dynasty and his father, Kao Chun-hsiang was a lawyer who obtained his juris doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School in the 1920s.

Kao acquired an interest in chemistry and physics at a young age. After graduating from the University of London with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, he worked as an engineer at two telecommunications companies in the UK, where he started studying fiber optic communications. He obtained a mechanical engineering doctoral degree in 1965.

Kao returned to Hong Kong in 1970 and co-founded the faculty of electronic engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he was also head of faculty.

In 1987, he was appointed vice chancellor of Chinese University and retired in 1996.

Kao won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for his groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communications, which fostered the invention of the internet.

Despite being crowned "the father of fiber optics," Kao did not apply for a patent as he wanted to share the technology with the rest of the world.

Only when he was awarded the Nobel Prize did the world discover that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2002.

The disease is a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys a patient's memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out daily activities, including walking and speaking.

In an interview in 2016, his wife Gwen Kao May-wan said that, due to the disease, Kao had completely forgotten about his invention of fiber optics and only recognized her as his wife.

She hoped Kao could pass away calmly at home in the company of his family as he was afraid of staying in hospital. The couple set up the Charles K Kao Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease in 2010, aiming to increase public awareness of the illness and to support patients.

The same year, he was awarded the Grand Bauhinia Medal by the SAR government.

The Chinese University said it was profoundly saddened and conveyed its deepest condolences to his family.

"His scientific and technological contributions continue to be praised by the world for the lasting changes they have brought to communications for human kind," the university said in a statement. "Professor Kao will remain forever part of that legacy."

The university will set up an area for condolences in the library in its Sha Tin campus from today until October 24.

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