The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is trying to drive me insane

What a difference a letter can make!  The Nobel Prize in Physics this year went to Charles K. Kao for developments in fiber optics and to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for the development of CCD cameras.  Fiber optics is a huge field, however, and the news descriptions have been a little vague as to what, exactly, Kao did for the prize, so I decided to look up Kao’s original paper for details.

The Nobel Prize site has a nice description of the scientific background; it includes the reference to the seminal contribution:

K.C. Kao and G.A. Hockham, “Dielectric-Fibre Surface Waveguides for optical frequencies,” Proc. IEEE 113, 1151 (1966).

So, no problem: I went to the website of the IEEE and browsed to the location of the reference.  No good: the paper is not in the Proceedings of the IEEE, and the volume for 1966 is 54, way off.  Now discombobulated, I did a search through the IEEE journals for the title of the paper.

Bingo, it seemed: I found the paper, with the right authors, and the right title.  It was in the Proceedings of the IEE, not the Proceedings of the IEEE — a common mistake.  IEE refers to the Institution of Electrical Engineers, a British society which was first founded in 1871 and became the IET in 2006, while IEEE refers to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, an American institution which was formed from the merger of other organizations in 1963.  There was a significant overlap of the two organizations in time, making things mildly confusing.

So I sat down to read the article.  A quick glance at the citation showed that it still didn’t match the Nobel reference, but hey, maybe they totally screwed up!  Then I happened to glance at one of the references in the paper: G. Hockham’s Ph.D. Thesis, 1969.  What??!! Kao and Hockham’s paper was supposed to be written in 1966 — could they see the future??!!

A closer look at the citation shows a problem: the paper I’m looking at was published in 1986.  I suddenly had my doubts that I was looking at the right paper — perhaps I was looking at a review article, or an article so closely related it had the same title?

All of this confusion happened over about 5-10 minutes.  At this point, I think capillaries started to burst in my head.  I did a frantic internet search to try and find the proper citation, which was not only fruitless but almost destructive — a search on “kao iee” brought me to one of those sites that tries to “virus scan” your computer and sell  you crap.

Finally, I calmed down a bit and looked again at the 1986 paper.  In small print on the bottom of the front page, I found:

Paper 5033E was originally published in the Proceedings IEE, July 1966.

The version of the paper I found was a reprint of the original.  The original didn’t turn up in my IEEE website search because they haven’t updated their digital archives that far back.

So the document on the Nobel Prize site has a citation which is off by only one letter — one too many ‘E’s — and that threw me into a complete tizzy.  Let this be a cautionary tale on the importance of properly citing articles.

However, I still don’t understand how a reprinted paper can cite a Ph.D. thesis which was written 3 years after the original publication.

I’ll actually write a post about the substance of the Nobel-winning research when my head stops throbbing…

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4 Responses to The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is trying to drive me insane

  1. IronMonkey says:

    Ha ha 🙂 “…drive me insane”. Rigorous research and citation search can do that at times.

  2. stuwat says:

    I very much look forward to your follow-up post on this. I haven’t looked at the original papers, but from what I can gather it seems Kao had discovered that closely matching refractive indices between core and cladding would make a better fibre for long distance light propagation in fibres, but most important of all was the type of material the fibre was composed of. Fused silica with specific dopant materials was proposed, although it took a lot of research by engineers at Corning to come up with a way to actually make fibres from it. That’s when long-distance optical fibre communication was born.

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