Nobel Physics Prize Awarded to Trio for Laser Work

Ignacio Smith
October 2, 2018

The technique is today used in corrective eye surgery.

She is the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel in physics and one of only three women in history, including Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

Donna Strickland is among three scientists who have won the Nobel Prize for work in laser physics. There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.

"Really? Is that all?" "I thought there might have been more..." I don't know what to say.

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Ashkin's work was based on the realization that the pressure of a beam of light could push microscopic objects and trap them in position.

"But this was science fiction for a very long time", said committee member Mats Larsson. The team created ultrashort, high-intensity laser pulses, essentially packing more light than standard lasers in the same tiny space.

Then, in 1987, he used the tweezers to capture living bacteria without harming them. These optical tweezers could then be used to control and direct individual cells, viruses, proteins, and even atoms. Because laser beams could only be amplified so far before they destroyed the amplifying material, Strickland and Mourou chose to first "stretch" out a laser pulse, lowering its peak power by slowing it down. It was as though scientists were trying to boil water in a pot that couldn't handle such high temperatures.

"It was great to have had the opportunity to work with one of the pioneers of ultrafast lasers, Gerard Mourou", said Strickland. Take a short laser pulse, stretch it in time, amplify it and squeeze it together again.

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The Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded 111 times to 207 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2017. This consideration automatically renders its male laureates - especially white male laureates from the United States and Europe, the overwhelming fraction - as being bearers of an extreme privilege apart from also being men who undertook commendable scientific work. But Burnell was not among the list of laureates for that prize.

"This year's prize is about tools made from light", said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm in their announcement on Tuesday.

"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. It's also fundamental for laser eye surgery.

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