Laser pioneers win Nobel Physics Prize

October 2, 2018
Arthur Ashkin of the US split the 2018 Nobel Physics Prize with Gerard Mourou of France and Donna Strickland of Canada

Three scientists on Tuesday won the Nobel Physics Prize, including the first woman to receive the prestigious award in 55 years, for inventing optical lasers that have paved the way for advanced precision instruments used in corrective eye surgery.

Arthur Ashkin of the United States won one half of the nine-million Swedish kronor (about $1.01 million or 870,000 euros) prize, while Gerard Mourou of France and Donna Strickland of Canada shared the other half.

Strickland is just the third woman to win a Nobel Physics Prize since it was first awarded in 1901, while Ashkin, 96, is the oldest person to win a Nobel, beating out American Leonid Hurwicz who was 90 when he won the 2007 Economics Prize.

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 tiny objects, "an old dream of science fiction," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

A major breakthrough came in 1987 when Ashkin used the tweezers to capture living bacteria without harming them, the Academy noted.

According to Ian Musgrave of Britain's Central Laser Facility, optical tweezers make it possible to use lasers to manipulate very small objects, such as beads of glass or oil droplets, to position them precisely or control the environment around them.

The winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics since 2012

The tweezers can for example be used to "trap droplets from asthma inhalers to improve the efficiency of delivery through the lungs," he said.

Ashkin made his discovery while working at AT&T Bell Laboratories from 1952 to 1991.

'Most intense laser pulses ever'

Meanwhile Mourou, 74, and Strickland, 59, 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.

Their technique is now used in corrective eye surgery, among other things.

Mourou was most recently affiliated with France's Ecole Polytechnique, while Strickland, who was his student at the University of Rochester in New York, is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Contacted by AFP, Mourou said he was getting ready for his daily swim just before noon on Tuesday when he got the call from the Academy.

"You don't expect it. You can imagine it, but when it actually happens, it's different," he said, adding that his day had turned out "crazy".

Laser research has been honoured with Nobels on several occasions, including the 1964 physics prize and the 1999 chemistry prize.

Donna Strickland, only the third woman Nobel Physics Prize-winner, said "we need to celebrate women physicists because they're out there"
Women are 'out there'

Meanwhile, speaking by phone to the Academy, a moved Strickland said she was thrilled to receive the Nobel prize that has been the least accessible for women.

"We need to celebrate women physicists because they're out there... I'm honoured to be one of those women."

Before her, only Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer had won the physics prize, in 1903 and 1963 respectively.

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

Gerard Mourou said he was getting ready for his daily swim when he got the call from the Academy

It has insisted that 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.

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.


The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announcement:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2018

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics 2018

"for groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics"

with one half to

Arthur Ashkin, Bell Laboratories, Holmdel, USA, "for the optical tweezers and their application to biological systems"

and the other half jointly to

Gérard Mourou, École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA

Donna Strickland, University of Waterloo, Canada

"for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses"

Tools made of light

The inventions being honoured this year have revolutionised laser physics. Extremely small objects and incredibly rapid processes are now being seen in a new light. Advanced precision instruments are opening up unexplored areas of research and a multitude of industrial and medical applications. Arthur Ashkin invented optical tweezers that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers. This new tool allowed Ashkin to realise an old dream of science fiction – using the radiation pressure of light to move physical objects. He succeeded in getting laser light to push small particles towards the centre of the beam and to hold them there. Optical tweezers had been invented. A major breakthrough came in 1987, when Ashkin used the tweezers to capture living bacteria without harming them. He immediately began studying biological systems and optical tweezers are now widely used to investigate the machinery of life. Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland paved the way towards the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind. Their revolutionary article was published in 1985 and was the foundation of Strickland's doctoral thesis. Using an ingenious approach, they succeeded in creating ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses without destroying

the amplifying material. First they stretched the laser pulses in time to reduce their peak power, then amplified them, and finally compressed them. If a pulse is compressed in time and becomes shorter, then more light is packed together in the same tiny space – the intensity of the pulse increases dramatically. Strickland and Mourou's newly invented technique, called chirped pulse amplification, CPA, soon became standard for subsequent high-intensity lasers. Its uses include the millions of corrective eye surgeries that are conducted every year using the sharpest of laser beams. The innumerable areas of application have not yet been completely explored. However, even now these celebrated inventions allow us to rummage around in the microworld in the best spirit of Alfred Nobel – for the greatest benefit to humankind.

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Explore further: Nobel Prize in physics to be announced Tuesday

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