Innovations: The Undying Pulse; December 2001; Scientific American Magazine; by Gary Stix; 3 Page(s)
In 1834 John Scott Russell, a Scottish civil engineer, was riding alongside a canal near Edinburgh when he noticed a curious occurrence. When a horse-drawn barge suddenly stopped, it generated a single wave that continued to move along the canal for kilometers without any change in form or speed. Since Russell's observation, solitary waves, or solitons, have gained a solid mathematical underpinning and remain objects of fascinated study in fields from physics to biology.
The most important practical use for solitons has been in fiber-optic communications; the waves, or pulses, carry digital bits to be transmitted ultralong distances without reconditioning. Much of the groundbreaking research for optical solitons came from Bell Laboratories, the institution that has served as an incubator of technologies ranging from the transistor to the laser. In the next few months the first products of Bell Labs's decades of labors on solitons may finally reach the marketplace. "I'm at long last realizing the dream I've had for the past 15 years," says Linn Mollenauer, who has headed Bell Labs's research effort on solitons.