Nobel Prize

Nobel physics prize goes to laser researchers, including first woman to win award in 55 years

Arthur Ashkin, Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland invented technologies which paved the way for advanced precision instruments used in industry and medicine

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2018, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2018, 11:26pm

Three pioneering laser researchers shared the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday – including the first woman to win in more than half a century.

Canadian Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou of France shared half the 9 million krona (US$1 million) prize, while American Arthur Ashkin won the other.

Strickland said her first thought on hearing she had won was “it’s crazy”.

She is the first woman to win since Maria Goeppert-Mayer for her work on the structure of nuclei in 1963. Strickland is also only the third woman to have won – the other being Marie Curie in 1903.

The inventions by the three scientists date back to the mid-1980s and over the years they have revolutionised laser physics.

“Billions of people make daily use of optical disc drive, laser printers and optical scanners, millions undergo laser surgery,” said a Nobel committee member. “The laser is truly one of the many examples of how a so-called blue sky discovery in a fundamental science eventually may transform our daily lives.”

Member of the Nobel Committee for Physics Mats Larsson explains what the winners did. Photo: AFP

Ashkin was honoured for his invention of “optical tweezers” that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers.

With this he was able to use the radiation pressure of light to move physical objects, “an old dream of science fiction”, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Ashkin’s work was based on the realisation that the pressure of a beam of light could push microscopic objects and trap them in position. A breakthrough came in 1987 when he used the tweezers to capture living bacteria without harming them, the Academy noted.

At 96, Ashkin, who made his discovery while working at AT&T Bell Laboratories from 1952 to 1991, is the oldest winner of a Nobel Prize, beating out American Leonid Hurwicz who was 90 when he won the 2007 Economics Prize.

Meanwhile Mourou, 74, and Strickland won for helping develop a method to generate ultra-short optical pulses, “the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind”, the jury said.

“We needed a new way to create the peak power of laser pulses,” said Michael Moloney, chief executive officer of the American Institute of Physics. The breakthrough came with the work of prizewinners Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland, he said.

While laser eye surgery is the most familiar application of their work, it has also let scientists probe fundamental forces acting within matter at very high temperatures and pressures, Moloney said.

Mourou was affiliated with the Ecole Polytechnique of France and the University of Michigan in the US, while Strickland, his student, is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Speaking by phone soon after the announcement was made, Strickland said: “You do always wonder if it’s real.”

A reporter asked what it felt like to be only the third woman in history to win the physics prize.

“Really? Is that all? I thought there might have been more,” Strickland responded. “Obviously we need to celebrate woman physicists because we’re out there. I don’t know what to say. I’m honoured to be one of those women.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has in the past lamented the small number of women laureates in the science fields in general.

It insisted it is not due to male chauvinism bias on the award committees, instead attributing it to the fact that laboratory doors were closed to women for so long.

“It’s a small percentage for sure, that’s why we are taking measures to encourage more nominations because we don’t want to miss anyone,” the head of the academy, Goran Hansson, said on Tuesday.

Moloney praised all the laureates and said: “It is also a personal delight to see Dr Strickland break the 55-year hiatus since a woman has been awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics, making this year’s award all the more historic.”

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He said the gap was “way too long” and credited the work of all three with “expanding what is possible at the extremes of time, space and forms of matter”.

Last year, US astrophysicists Barry Barish, Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss won the physics prize for the discovery of gravitational waves, predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago as part of his theory of general relativity.

On Monday, two immunologists, James Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan, won this year’s Nobel Medicine Prize for research into how the body’s natural defences can fight cancer.

The winners of the chemistry prize will be announced on Wednesday, followed by the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize will wrap up the Nobel season on Monday, October 8.

For the first time since 1949, the Swedish Academy has postponed the announcement of the 2018 Nobel Literature Prize until next year, amid a #MeToo scandal and bitter internal dispute that has prevented it from functioning properly.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, The Washington Post