Narinder S. Kapany: Fibre optics intellectual evangelist

A physicist and entrepreneur who cut an imposing figure, he did more than anyone to make optical research a priority in government and corporate budgets. - NYT

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Dr. Kapany with members of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce at the opening of his company, Optics Technology, in 1960. – Photo: Kapany family
By Clay Risen | New York Times | US |

When Narinder S. Kapany was in high school in the 1940s in Dehradun, an Indian city in the Himalayan foothills, his science teacher told him that light travels only in straight lines. By then he had already spent years playing around with a box camera, and he knew that light could at least be turned in different directions, through lenses and prisms. Something about the teacher’s attitude, he later said, made him want to go further, to prove him wrong by figuring out how to actually bend light.

By the time he entered graduate school at Imperial College London in 1952, he realized he wasn’t alone. For decades researchers across Europe had been studying ways to transmit light through flexible glass fibers. But a host of technical challenges, not to mention World War II, had set them back.

He persuaded one of those scientists, Harold Hopkins, to hire him as a research assistant, and the two clicked. Professor Hopkins, a formidable theoretician, provided the ideas; Dr. Kapany, more technically minded, figured out the practical side. In 1954 the pair announced a breakthrough in the journal Nature, demonstrating how to bundle thousands of impossibly thin glass fibers together and then connect them end to end.

Their paper, along with a separate article by another author in the same issue, marked the birth of fiber optics, the now-ubiquitous communications technology that carries phone calls, television shows and billions of cat memes around the world every day.

In later years, journalists took to calling Dr. Kapany the “father of fiber optics,” and several even claimed that he had been robbed of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics, which instead went to Charles Kao for his own groundbreaking work in fiber optics.

Whether Dr. Kapany’s scientific contributions stand alongside Dr. Kao’s is debatable, but his work as an intellectual evangelist for the burgeoning field of fiber optics is undeniable.

“He was a pioneer,” the science journalist Jeff Hecht said in an interview, an “enthusiastic promoter” of a technology that long seemed more like science fiction than fact. As an academic researcher, and later as the chief executive of one of the first venture-capital-backed companies in Silicon Valley, Dr. Kapany relentlessly pushed fiber optics onto corporate and government research budgets, ensuring that the breakthroughs he and Professor Hopkins made in the 1950s would bear fruit in the 1960s.

Dr. Kapany was a practicing Sikh and fiercely proud of his heritage. He amassed one of the world’s largest collections of Sikh art and sponsored rooms to feature it in museums around the country. “My father became convinced that the world at large should know who the Sikhs are and the Sikh people themselves should not forget who they are as they emigrate to other lands far from their original roots,” his daughter said.

But he was also aware of how exotic he seemed to some as an Indian in early postwar America, before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened the door to millions of Asian immigrants. Whenever he demonstrated fiber optics to visitors, he called it his “Indian optical rope trick.”

And he adopted an American accent, retaining just enough of his Indian and English tenor to make him stand out — an aptitude for code-switching that, his son said, contributed to his success in both the science lab and the boardroom.

“He used that turban like a lethal weapon,” his son said. “When you see a guy who looked like that and who spoke like J.F.K., you’re not going to forget him.”

Read the full article, ‘Narinder S. Kapany, ‘Father of Fiber Optics,’ Dies at 94′ (New York Times, 7 Jan 2021), here.

 

RELATED STORY:

Lights-out for Father of Fibre Optics (Asia Samachar, 4 Dec 2020)

 

ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: editor@asiasamachar.com | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |

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