Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to three

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three people, including the first woman to win the Prize in 55 years. The recipients are Arthur Ashkin (half share), Gérard Moureau (quarter share) and Donna Strickland (quarter share), and the Prize committee cited the three this way:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2018 was awarded “for groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics” with one half to Arthur Ashkin “for the optical tweezers and their application to biological systems”, the other half jointly to Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland “for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses” .”

Ashkin, at 96, is the oldest of all Nobel Laureates in history; he’s now retired but worked at Bell Labs and Lucent Technology. His “optical tweezers” are described this way:

Optical tweezers (originally called “single-beam gradient force trap”) are scientific instruments that use a highly focused laser beam to provide an attractive or repulsive force (typically on the order of piconewtons), depending on the relative refractive index between particle and surrounding medium, to physically hold and move microscopic objects similar to tweezers. They are able to trap and manipulate small particles, typically order of micron in size, including dielectric and absorbing particles. Optical tweezers have been particularly successful in studying a variety of biological systems in recent years.

Mourou was director of the Laboratoire d’Optique Appliquee at the ENSTA (Palaiseau, France) and is a professor at the École Polytechnique (Palaiseau, France). Strickland is an associate professor (what? not full professor?) at the University of Waterloo. Wikipedia describes the accomplishments of Mourou and Strickland this way (Strickland won for work she did as a grad student, with Mourou as her supervisor):

Mourou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Donna Strickland, for their work on chirped pulse amplification. What Strickland and Mourou has find is that stretching a laser out reduced its peak power, which could then be greatly amplified using normal instruments. It could then be compressed to create the short-lived, highly powerful lasers they were after. The technique, which was described in Strickland’s first scientific publication, came to be known as chirped pulse amplification (CPA). They probably didn’t know it then, but the tools Strickland and Mourou created have made it possible to study natural phenomena in unprecedented ways. CPA could also per definition be used to create a laser pulse that only lasts one attosecond, one-billionth of a billionth of a second. At those timescales, it became possible to not just study chemical reactions, but what happens inside individual atoms.

Here are the winners:(left to right) Ashkin, Moureau, and Strickland:

The other two women to garner Physics Nobels were Marie Curie (1903; she also won for Chemistry in 1911) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963, shared with Hans Jensen and Eugene Wigner).

Nobody guessed any of the Physics winners in our contest. Try again next year!


  1. Jonathan Dore
    Posted October 2, 2018 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    “Strickland is an associate professor (what? not full professor?) at the University of Waterloo.”

    I suspect an upgrade may soon follow!

    • W.Benson
      Posted October 2, 2018 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      An upgrade will certainly follow, if not at Waterloo, then someplace else.

  2. Serendipitydawg
    Posted October 2, 2018 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I was pleased to see the announcement of Donna Strickland’s award. After Jocelyn Bell was quietly sidelined in favour of her male peers, at least one of whom was oblivious to the fact that he wouldn’t have a Nobel prize if it wasn’t for her persistence, it is about time.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted October 2, 2018 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      I don’t think Bell was “sidelined” as when I checked she was the second author on the pulsar paper; and there were more non-awarded co-authors/co-discoverers.

      And I note Bell herself agrees: “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.” [ ]

      YMMV of course, but the evidence seems to be that it was the usual ranking by author/work done, not the other way around.

      • Serendipitydawg
        Posted October 2, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        She certainly has always said in interviews that her career was better for not winning.

  3. Tom Czarny
    Posted October 2, 2018 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Re the contest:

  4. Posted October 2, 2018 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Nobody guessed any of the Physics winners in our contest.

    I don’t think these three physicists were on the radar of most of us. At least us non-physicists.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted October 2, 2018 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Physics is so large. I have heard of the awarded techniques though.

      That said, lasers are cool! /channeling Star Wars fans

  5. Christopher
    Posted October 2, 2018 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Can’t say I understand much about what this was awarded for but if it can be used to remove those pesky nose and ear hairs, I’m all for it!

  6. Steve Pollard
    Posted October 2, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Congrats to all, especially Strickland. Perfect timing after this:

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 2, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      God that was awful. Saw it on the weekend. Became sad.

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 2, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Donna Strickland and I share the alma mater. I haven’t been quite as successful.

    • Posted October 2, 2018 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      UW certainly has a lot to celebrate today. Good for all the winners, and a special congrats to Mourou and Strickland.

%d bloggers like this: