Charles Kao, Hong Kong's Nobel Prize-winning physicist, dies aged 84

Charles Kao, Hong Kong's Nobel Prize-winning physicist, dies aged 84

The scientist, who had battled Alzheimer’s disease for years, did research on fibre optics which helped the development of modern communications

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Charles Kao Kuen arriving at Hong Kong Science Park in Sha Tin in 2011.
Photo: Edward Wong/SCMP

Professor Charles Kao Kuen, Hong Kong’s Nobel Prize winner in physics, died yesterday aged 84. He had battled Alzheimer’s for more than a decade. 

His work on fibre optics laid the groundwork for the development of modern communications.

Tributes flowed with chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor among the first to offer her public condolences. She hailed Kao as the “pride of Hong Kong” for his tremendous contributions to the city and the world by bringing revolutionary change to modern communications technology.

Wise words from another of history's most famous physicists

Known for his groundbreaking achievements involving the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication, Kao won a joint Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009, the Faraday Medal in 1989, and the Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 1985.

Born in 1933 in Shanghai, Kao’s passion for science started young.

He once recalled making explosive phosphorous mud balls with a primary school friend. The boys asked their driver to procure the necessary chemical ingredients for them. Their invention was inspired by what they had read in science magazines.

“One day as I was boiling some nitric acid, the bottle exploded and the concentrated acid splashed onto my younger brother’s trousers,” Kao once recounted.

Kao with his wife, Gwen Kao Wong May-wan, in 2016.
Photo: Jonathan Wong/SCMP

Thankfully, the acid did not land on his brother’s skin, but Kao did not escape his parents’ wrath and punishment, which included having all his chemicals confiscated.

Because of political instability, his family left Shanghai when he was 14. They moved to Hong Kong in 1948. Kao then studied at St Joseph’s College for five years.

He went on to study in Britain, graduating in 1957 from Woolwich Polytechnic – now the University of Greenwich in London – with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. He worked in Britain and obtained his PhD in electrical engineering at University College London in 1965.

Kao made his name as an academic researcher, affiliated from 1970 with Chinese University (CUHK) and later working in the private sector, notably with the ITT Corporation, an American manufacturing firm.

Physics is more than just something enjoyed by the geeky stars of Big Bang Theory - it makes life easier for those in need

In 1987, Kao took on the challenge of leading CUHK, serving as the vice-chancellor of the university for nine years.

During the years in charge, he spearheaded the establishment of the faculty of engineering, the faculty of education, and a number of research institutes. The university also nearly doubled in size during those few years, and a fourth undergraduate college was established.

At a ceremony marking CUHK’s open day event on November 13,1993, a dozen students stormed to the stage to protest against the university’s management hosting open day event to “glorify” its accomplishments. They opposed the event in front of guests present at the ceremony.

Kao, the vice-chancellor at the time. was about to deliver a speech but was embarrassed by the protest. Asked by Chinese University Student Press reporter Chow Po-chung after the ceremony if university management would punish those students, Kao replied: “Punishment? Why do I need to punish them? They have the freedom to express their views.”

Kao spent his later years raising awareness about Alzheimer’s disease.
Photo: Edward Wong/SCMP

In an article written a few years ago, Chow said he was stunned by Kao’s reply. Chow, currently an associate professor with the university’s department of government and public administration, said Kao’s leniency towards those students showed he was a “true educator”.

Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, the former vice-chancellor of CUHK, said Kao’s greatest contribution was his selfless decision not to use his invention to make money. Instead, he said the physicist shared it with the world, allowing everyone to enjoy fast communication of data made possible by fibre optics.

A former CUHK vice-chancellor, respected economist Professor Lawrence Lau Juen-yee, also a long-time friend of Kao’s, described him as a “true pioneer and giant” in science. “We would not have had internet and all the real-time communication that we have today if it had not been for his invention.”

But Professor Henry Wong Nai-ching, a former CUHK dean of science, said while the Nobel Prize brought the world’s attention to scientific research in Hong Kong and the university, he felt one of Kao’s biggest contributions to the city was a book he co-wrote in 1991 titled Technology Road Maps for Hong Kong. It laid out a blueprint for the city’s future development on innovation and technology.

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