Two major discoveries in laser science have proven to be more than just tricks of light. They allow scientists to tackle a range of previously impossible tasks. And in appreciation for what these advances offer, three of their discoverers will take home the 2018 Nobel Prize in physics.
The trio will share 9 million Swedish kronors. That’s equal to a bit more than $1 million.
Half will go to Arthur Ashkin for his work on laser-based tractor beams. He pioneered their development while a physicist at Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J. These beams are known as optical tweezers. They can manipulate small, fragile items — without hurting them. Such tiny tweezered objects can include viruses and bacteria.
The other half of the prize went to two physicists who created intense, short bursts of laser light. Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland produced these powerful laser pulses. They used a process now known as “chirped pulse amplification.” Other researchers would ultimately harness the technique for such applications as laser eye surgery.
The award marks only the third time a woman has been awarded a physics Nobel. (Marie Curie was the first, in 1903, for her research to explain nuclear radiation. Sixty years later, Maria Goeppert Mayer won it. She made discoveries related to the structure of atomic nuclei.)
About those tweezers and bright, bright beams
Individual particles of light are called photons. Scientists had known that the pressure exerted by photons can push objects around. Ashkin’s work took advantage of that. By focusing a laser beam just so, he realized that other small objects could be trapped and moved around. Ashkin’s first paper on optical tweezers came out in 1986. Since then, the technique’s popularity has exploded.
Philip Jones is a physicist at University College London, in England. Ashkin’s Nobel was “a thoroughly well-deserved and long-overdue award,” he says. Today, Jones notes, hundreds of labs across the world — including his own — perform work that relies on optical tweezers.
Such systems find use in a broad range of applications. These include testing how DNA stretches and studying the forces exerted by individual cells. The laser systems also might be used to trigger chemical reactions between a single pair of atoms. Building on the idea of laser tweezing allowed scientists to trap and cool atoms. (That discovery led to its own Nobel 21 years ago.)
Gérard Mourou works at École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France. Donna Strickland is at the University of Waterloo in Canada. In their own flourish of laser flare, these two wrangled light to open up new realms of technology and research. Their work was published in 1985. It showed scientists how to strengthen laser pulses beyond earlier limits. Instruments known as amplifiers can boost light pulses — but only to a point. Beyond that, the light would damage the amplifier. To get around that problem, Mourou and Strickland first stretched out their laser pulses. This lowered the light’s power to where it could be safely amplified. Afterward, they compressed the pulses back to their original size. Now those pulses reached higher-than-ever intensities.
Scientists now rely on this process to create the most powerful laser pulses on the planet. Some can pack millions of billions of watts of power! Such intense bursts of light are so rare in the universe that “when one of the modern lasers like this fires, god has to stop and think about what to do,” quips Paul Corkum. He’s a physicist in Canada at the University of Ottawa. But these lasers are not just for show. Their intense beams might one day be used to accelerate particles, trigger nuclear fusion or create matter from light.
Some scientists also build off of Mourou and Strickland’s technique to create amazingly short laser pulses. Each may last only attoseconds. That’s billionths of a billionth of a second. Such very short pulses can help create movies of very brief processes. For instance, they can reveal the mysterious physics of the electrons zipping around an atom.
Mourou and Strickland’s work “has really impacted the extremes to which humans can reach,” says Corkum. But laser pulses based on this technique also find use in more ordinary pursuits. For instance, they are the basis of laser eye surgery. They are also used to cut through materials — including the glass in some cell phones.
Women and the Nobels
It’s been 55 years since the last woman received a Nobel in physics. “It’s really terrific that barrier has finally been breached,” says Margaret Murnane. She’s a physicist at the JILA research center in Boulder, Colo. “It’s great that Donna is being recognized for her contribution to this very important laser-science advance.”
When told by a reporter at a press conference that she was only the third woman to have won the physics Nobel, Strickland replied, “Is that all? Really?” She said she is honored to be one of them.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, is based in Paris, France. "The acknowledgment of Donna Strickland’s accomplishments sends an important message of encouragement to girls and women to better commit themselves to the sciences," says Audrey Azoulay. She is UNESCO's Director-General. Fewer than three percent of scientists today are women. UNESCO hopes to see that change, and soon.
Göran Hansson is Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The number of women even nominated for a Nobel is a “small percentage” of the total, he noted at a press conference earlier today. Indeed, he noted: “We are taking measures to encourage more nominations [of women] because we don’t want to miss anyone.”
Ashkin, Mourou and Strickland will receive a medal and their prize money at a December 10 awards ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.
amplifier A device that boosts the power of a signal. For example, amplifiers are often attached to electric guitars to make them louder.
application A particular use or function of something.
atom The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.
bacteria (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals).
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
chemical A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
chemical reaction A process that involves the rearrangement of the molecules or structure of a substance, as opposed to a change in physical form (as from a solid to a gas).
DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.
electron A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids.
force Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.
laser A device that generates an intense beam of coherent light of a single color. Lasers are used in drilling and cutting, alignment and guidance, in data storage and in surgery.
Nobel Prize A prestigious award named after Alfred Nobel. Best known as the inventor of dynamite, Nobel was a wealthy man when he died on December 10, 1896. In his will, Nobel left much of his fortune to create prizes to those who have done their best for humanity in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Winners receive a medal and large cash award.
optical An adjective that refers to light or vision.
particle A minute amount of something.
photon A particle representing the smallest possible amount of light or other type of electromagnetic radiation.
physics The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study that emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in such areas is known as a physicist.
pressure Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.
radiation (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.
range The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists. (in math or for measurements) The extent to which variation in values is possible. Also, the distance within which something can be reached or perceived.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
trillion A number representing a million million — or 1,000,000,000,000 — of something.
universe The entire cosmos: All things that exist throughout space and time. It has been expanding since its formation during an event known as the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago (give or take a few hundred million years).