Scientists Arthur Ashkin from the U.S.-based Bell Labs, Gérard Mourou from École Polytechnique in France, and Donna Strickland from the University of Waterloo in Canada shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering work in laser physics. Strickland is the third female physics laureate ever, after Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963, and the third including Marie Curie in 1903.
Ashikin wins half of the 9 million Swedish krona prize for inventing optical tweezers, while Mourou and Strickland split the other half for devising a new procedure called chirped-pulse amplification that allowed for high-intensity laser pulses. Both of these methods have become ubiquitous in everyday physics research.
Strickland’s recognition serves as a major milestone while highlighting the gender imbalance of the prize’s winners.
“We need to celebrate women physicists because they’re out there… I’m honoured to be one of those women,” Strickland said in a statement.
Lasers are incredible, of course. They’re a quantum phenomenon in which exciting the electrons in a medium causes the atoms to continue exciting one another, creating a coherent beam of light where the photons have the same wavelength. Both Nobel-winning groups employed this phenomena to develop widely used techniques.
Ashkin’s work with optical tweezers, which use laser light as a tool to move around tiny objects, dates back to the 1980s. Passing a laser through a microscope and onto a sample squeezes the light beam, generating a force on the object in the opposite direction of the beam. This allows researchers to precisely manipulate tiny objects like single cells or molecules.
“Dr Ashkin’s work on optical tweezers could be something out of a sci-fi book,” Clara Nellist, particle physicist at the ATLAS experiment at CERN told Gizmodo. “He took the idea of a tractor beam and shrunk it down to the microscopic scale in order to be able to capture individual viruses and bacteria.”
Chirped-pulse amplification uses lasers to create ultra-short, high-intensity pulses. Prior to Strickland and Mourou’s research, short pulses could damage the material used to amplify the laser—getting around this problem required larger beams and larger, more expensive laser facilities. The two got around this problem by devising a three-part method in which they stretched out the laser pulse, amplified it, then compressed it once again. The research, published in 1985, served as the basis of Strickland’s doctoral thesis.
Today, chirped-pulse amplification is frequently used in the frontiers of laser physics to create incredibly short pulses. It led to the creation of high-power tabletop laser pulses, and it’s even used in laser corrective eye surgery, according to the Nobel release.
“I am very happy that they got the Nobel Prize,” Marie-Emmanuelle Couprie, scientist at the Soleil Synchrotron in France whose research builds on Strickland and Mourou’s, told Gizmodo. “It’s fundamentally important because it provides the highest-power laser with which you can do things that we haven’t dreamed of before.” And she’s especially excited about Strickland’s win. “Of course as a female scientist, I was very happy that once again the Nobel Prize was given to a lady, because there are so few in physics. It’s great pleasure to me.”
Both of the prize-winning techniques are fundamental to present-day physics research. If you read Gizmodo often, these methods are frequently in the background of the science we cover, including in new lasers, their applications and uses, as well as by researchers who manipulate small particles.
Women win just 3 percent of the science Nobel Prizes, and last year’s winners consisted solely of white men, reported Axios. Science, especially physics, is still stacked mostly with white men, and there’s tons of work to do to ensure that we don’t go another 50 years before the next female winner. Just this week, women at CERN faced a sexist tirade at a event about gender parity in physics, highlighting the antagonistic atmosphere in which many female physicists must work.
“We should celebrate that we finally have a third female physics laureate,” Nellist said, “but it’s also been a long time coming and there is still a lot of work to be done. Dr Strickland didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until this morning!”
Meanwhile, others have discussed that the Nobel Prize doesn’t accurately reflect the way physics gets done. Last year, Princeton physicist Shivaji Sondhi and Standord physicist Steven Kivelson penned an editorial proposing that the prize should go to more people, or should instead celebrate a scientist’s achievement over an entire lifetime. But this year, the committee was instead able to find individuals whose pioneering methods changed the way science is conducted.
So congratulations to the 2018 winners. Given the ubiquity of the techniques and the third female Nobel physics laureate ever, this year’s prize is one to be excited about.
This post has been updated with comment from Clara Nellist.