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Charles KAO Kuen




Charles KAO Kuen

Doctor of Science
honoris causa

Professor Sir Charles Kao Kuen is a world renowned researcher and academic, a man globally acclaimed as the "father of fibre optic communications". Indeed, every day we use the internet for carrying out research or disseminating materials, sending and receiving e-mails or using facebook, twitter or youtube we should give thanks to him for providing the super-highway by which such services have become readily accessible.

We should similarly be grateful to him every time we make an international telephone call. These facilities, which we now take for granted as an indispensable part of our every-day lives, owe much to his brilliance of mind and dedication to research. He has also saved us money as his inventions have not only facilitated global communications but reduced their cost.

Sir Charles was born in Shanghai in 1933. He studied Chinese classics at home with a tutor and later English and French at an international school. His family moved to Hong Kong in 1948 where he completed his A levels at St Joseph's College. He then pursued his undergraduate studies at Woolwich Polytechnic (now the University of Greenwich) close by the Thames obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree. He went on to complete his doctorate at University College London as an external student whilst working at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in Harlow, a subsidiary of the American company ITT.

It was there that he carried out his first pioneering research in fibre optics. At that time copper wires were widely used for telecommunications, but Sir Charles believed that glass fibres held much greater potential. The problem to which he put his mind was how to improve the quality of communications using glass fibres. He chronicled their properties and calculated how to transmit light over long distances via such fibres.

His research led him to conclude that communication by this method was being impaired by impurities in the glass used and he persuaded the communications industry that silica glass of high purity (fused silica) was the ideal material for long rage optical communications. That material was notoriously difficult to work with, but in 1970 researchers in the USA succeeded in making such fibres. This discovery transformed the optical communications industry and optical fibre became the "concrete" of the communication super-highway. Likewise, in the context of telephone calls, whereas traditional copper cables could handle no more than a few telephone conversations at a time, today's fibre optic cables can transmit more than a billion calls simultaneously.

In 1970 Sir Charles left England on leave of absence to join the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he founded the Department of Electronics. He was soon promoted to the Chair in Electronics and established both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in electronics. His leave of absence being at an end he returned to the commercial world, joining ITT Corporation in Virginia in the United States of America to continue his research. At ITT he held the posts first of Chief Scientist and subsequently of Director of Engineering. In 1981 in recognition of his outstanding research and management capabilities, ITT named him their first executive scientist. The attraction of academia was, however, strong and in 1987 he returned as Vice Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He held this prestigious position until his retirement in 1996.

As is well known Sir Charles faced many challenges during this period, including a major change in the University's academic system and backlash of political turmoil. Sir Charles won the unanimous approval of his colleagues and students because of his conviction to open communication, conveyed with his customary charm and good humour.

Sir Charles' remarkable achievements have been globally acclaimed. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by many universities including in Hong Kong the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in the United Kingdom University College London and the Universities of Greenwich, Glasgow, Sussex, Durham, Hull and Strathclyde, in the United States of America Yale and Princeton and from the oldest University of all, the University of Padua in Italy. He is also an honorary professor at both Peking and Tsinghua Universities. His most prestigious award, however, was the Nobel Prize for Physics awarded in 2009 for his pioneering work in fibre optics.

His contribution to society was further recognised by his Knighthood and the award of the Grand Bauhinia Medal in 2010.

It is well known that Sir Charles now suffers from Alzheimer's disease for which there is presently no cure. Indeed it is estimated that some 10% of people aged sixty-five and above in Hong Kong suffer from some form of dementia. In this and in all his magnificent endeavours, he is fortunate to have the support of his wonderful wife Gwen to whom he has been married for more than fifty years. The couple are at the forefront of a campaign to enable the community to have a better understanding of dementia and are striving to improve the care services available to sufferers.

Despite his affliction, he still leads an active life and continues to enjoy a game of tennis with Gwen and his many friends.

Looking back on his life Sir Charles in his memoir "A Time and a Tide" quotes a well known passage from Shakespeare: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and misery". He agrees with Shakespeare that timing is everything concluding modestly that he was fortunate in entering the electronics and communications industry when the demand for improvement had reached a crescendo. He certainly did seize the day which led him to ground-breaking scientific discovery.

Sir Charles has affected all our lives in many practical ways. He is also a shining example of a warm and caring individual who has devoted himself to the betterment of mankind and who, throughout his career, has steadfastly refused to compromise his integrity.

I would like to end by repeating a tongue-in-cheek quote from Gwen on her husband's achievements:

"Thank you for all your good wishes and congratulations. Now you know who is responsible for the fibre optical cables that enable all the excessive information, both true and false, good and bad, that circulate on the internet".

Mr Pro-Chancellor, it is my honour and privilege to present to you Professor Sir Charles Kao Kuen for the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator of the University. 

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