Fiber back and forth

by Stephen Hardy

It's a big year for milestones. Dr. Charles Kao was feted at OFC/NFOEC in March for winning the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work on glass optical fiber. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Corning's development of a low-loss fiber that paved the way for today's high-speed communications networks. (You can read a first-hand account by Dr. Donald Keck of the road to this discovery on our website.) Of more provincial interest–that province being the desk at which I'm typing this–2010 marks the 100th year that Lightwave's parent company, PennWell Corp., has been in business. (Lightwave itself has been around for more than 25 years, in case you're curious.)

For both developers and users of the technology, optical communications has always represented the cutting edge of networking. For that reason, those of us involved with fiber optics usually have our eyes fixed on the horizon, on what's coming next. The many anniversaries and celebrations of 2010, however, should remind us that it's not a bad idea to occasionally look back and remember how far we've come and how we got here.

In the past 40 years, fiber has grown from a niche technology to ubiquitous status in networks around the world. The inroads it has made in carrier applications are now being repeated in enterprise networks, spreading resolutely from the backbone closer to the end user. It's not a question of whether fiber will conquer copper, but of when.

Yet, the milestones I cited at the start of this column really aren't technological; they're personal. And when we look back, in both our professinoal and private lives, we should think about the people who have helped us progress along whatever path we're traveling.

Dr. Keck illustrates this point in his online article by citing the previous work by a pair of Corning scientists, Dr. Frank Hyde and Dr. Martin Nordberg, as well as team leader Dr. Bob Maurer and his fellow collaborators. Dr. Kao has always been magnanimous in citing his co-workers at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories. Personally, I wouldn't have achieved whatever level of success I've enjoyed without the mentoring of a publisher I reported to more than 15 years ago, who pointed out that my role wasn't to write about what interested me, but what interested my audience.

All of us with the common sense to realize that talent only gets one so far in life has sought a mentor–whether a co-worker, a boss, a parent or family member, a religious advisor, whomever–who could give us a fighting chance to make the right decision each time we've encountered a fork in the road. And if we're aware enough of the value of such mentoring, we've attempted to return the favor by being a mentor to someone ourselves.

In this way, the notion of propagation applies not only to fiber, but to the role each of us plays in the communities–technical, business, and otherwise–of which we are all parts. And like the fiber industry, we would do well to occasionally take the time to recognize and appreciate those whose work serves as a foundation for our own.

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