Nobel Prize goes to laser-wrangling physicists, including first woman to be honored in 55 years

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to a trio of researchers whose work in lasers enabled all kinds of new experiments and treatments. Arthur Ashkin is the primary recipient, sharing the prize with Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland; notably, the latter is the first woman to receive the prize (in physics, to be clear) since 1963, and only the third in history.

“This year’s prize is about tools made from light,” the Swedish foundation said in its announcement of the prize. ”

The work that won the award stretches over decades. Ashkin’s began during his tenure at Bell Labs in the ’60s and ’70s, where he discovered that tiny particles and in fact cells and monocellular creatures could be trapped and manipulated using microscopic lasers.

In 1987 he used his “optical tweezers” to capture a bacterium without harming it, opening the possibility of the tool being used for all kinds of biological applications.

Mourou and Strickland, meanwhile, were also making strides in laser technology. They approached the open question of how to compress a powerful laser into a brief but equally powerful pulse, publishing a breakthrough paper in 1985.

The CPA technique described by Mourou and Strickland’s landmark research.

By “stretching” the beam out, then amplifying it, then compressing it again (as you see in the diagram above), they created the first “chirped pulse amplification,” which would become a standard tool. If you’ve gotten laser eye surgery, for instance, you’ve enjoyed the benefit of their research.

“The innumerable areas of application have not yet been completely explored,” the Nobel press release reads. “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.”

Strickland joins the very small club of women who have received the prestigious prize (again, in physics; many women have won it in the other categories). It was given in 1963 to Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who created the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, and before that in 1903 to Marie Curie for, of course, her work on radium. (She won the Nobel for Chemistry eight years later, making her the only woman to win two Nobels and the only person to win one in two different fields.)

Speaking to NPR, Strickland expressed surprise that so few women had been honored. “Really? I thought there might’ve been more,” she said. “Obviously, we need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there … I don’t know what to say, I’m honored to be one of these women.”

If you’re curious about the specifics of the research honored today, feel free to check out this writeup by the Nobel Foundation.