Physics Nobel won by Three Laser Scientists

Nobel Prize for Physics 2018, for breakthroughs in laser technology that have turned light beams into precision instruments for everything used from eye surgery to micro-machining, has been won on Tuesday October 2, 2018 by three scientists including the first woman to receive the prestigious award in 55 years. Arthur Ashkin of the U.S. won one half of the nine million Swedish kronor (about $1.01 million) prize, while Gerard Mourou of France and Donna Strickland of Canada shared the other half.

Ashkin, 96, PhD in nuclear physics from Cornell University in 1952, has authored Optical Trapping and Manipulation of Neutral Particles Using Lasers and holds 47 patents to his name. Ashkin known to be the ‘father of laser radiation pressure’ has been honoured for his invention of “optical tweezers” and their application to biological systems. Optical tweezers grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers. Ashkin made this discovery while working at AT&T Bell Laboratories from 1952 to 1991 and is the oldest winner of a Nobel Prize, beating out American Leonid Hurwicz who was 90 when he won the 2007 Economics Prize. According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

  • Ashkin with optical tweezers was able to use the radiation pressure of light to move physical objects, “an old dream of science fiction”.
  • A major breakthrough came in 1987 when Mr. Ashkin used the tweezers to capture living bacteria without harming them.

Gerard Mourou along with his student Donna Strickland (Ms.) jointly co-invented a technique called ‘chirped pulse amplification’, or CPA. According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences they are honoured:

  • For helping develop a method to generate ultra-short optical pulses, “the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind”.
  • Their technique is now used in corrective eye surgery.

Gerard Mourou, 74, founding Director of the Centre for Ultra-fast Optical Science, is a scientist and a professor at Haut Collège at the École Polytechnique of France and A. D. Moore Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan in the U.S. He was also involved in building the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) project and what is believed to be one of the world’s most powerful lasers, the Apollon, in developments that researchers hope will one day help deal with nuclear waste, treating tumours and clearing debris in space.

Mourou is the recipient to many awards like the Wood Prize from the Optical Society of America, the Edgerton Prize from the SPIE, the Sarnoff Prize from the IEEE, and the 2004 IEEE/LEOS Quantum Electronics Award.

Donna Strickland, 59, born in Guelph, Ontario and is a Canadian national, student of Mourou, is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, is the third female laureate to have bagged the prize in physics after Maria Goeppert-Mayer and Marie Curie won in 1963 and 1901 respectively, ending after 55 years the dry spell for women winning the prestigious laurel, Strickland exclaimed, “We need to celebrate women physicists because they’re out there… I’m honoured to be one of those women”!

  • Strickland ‘paved the way’ for the most intense laser beams ever created by humans via a technique that stretches and then amplifies the light beam.
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