Physics Nobel won by laser wizardry – laureates include first woman in 55 years

Nobel prize medal

The Nobel Prize medal.Credit: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy

A trio of laser scientists have won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work using intense beams to capture superfast processes and to manipulate tiny objects . The laureates include Donna Strickland, who is the first woman to win the award in 55 years.

Strickland, at the University of Waterloo, Canada, will share half the the 9 million Swedish krona (US$1 million) prize with her former supervisor, Gérard Mourou, from the École Polytechnique, in Palaiseau, France. The other half of the prize went to Arthur Ashkin, of Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey.

Strickland and Mourou pioneered a way to produce the shortest, most intense pulses of light ever created, which are now used throughout science to unravel processes that previously appeared instantaneous, such as the motion of electrons within atoms, as well as in laser-eye surgery.

Ashkin won the prize for his pioneering development of 'optical tweezers', beams of laser light that can grab and control microscopic objects such as viruses and cells.

“First of all, you have to think it’s crazy, so that was my first thought," said Strickland, who spoke as part of the announcement of the prizes on 2 October. "And you do always wonder if it’s real."

The article that laid the foundations for the winning research was published in 1985, when Strickland was a PhD student.

“The innumerable areas of application have not yet been completely explored,” according to a statement released by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize. "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 is the third woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics; the last female scientist to win was Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

“I thought there might have been more," said Strickland when asked about this aspect of the achievement. She added: "Well obviously we need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there, and hopefully in the time it will start to move forward at a faster rate maybe. I don’t know what to say, I’m honoured to be one of those women.”

The story will be updated throughout the day.

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