Nobel Prize “for Ground­breaking Inven­tions in Laser Physics”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences KVA has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics 2018 with one half to Arthur Ashkin, Bell Laboratories, Holmdel, USA, “for the optical tweezers and their application to biological systems,” and the other half jointly to Gérard Mourou, École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, and Donna Strickland, University of Waterloo, Canada, “for their method of generating high-intensity, ultrashort optical pulses.”

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2018 is awarded with one half to Arthur Ashkin, and the other half jointly to Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland (Source: Nobel Media AB / N. Elmehed)

The inventions being honored this year have revolutionized laser physics. Extremely small objects and incredibly rapid processes are now being seen in a new light. Advanced precision instruments are opening up unexplored areas of research and a multitude of industrial and medical applications.

Arthur Ashkin invented optical tweezers that grab particles, atoms, viruses, and other living cells with their laser beam fingers. This new tool allowed Ashkin to realize an old dream of science fiction – using the radiation pressure of light to move physical objects. He succeeded in getting laser light to push small particles towards the center of the beam and to hold them there. Optical tweezers had been invented.

A major breakthrough came in 1987, when Ashkin used the tweezers to capture living bacteria without harming them. He immediately began studying biological systems and optical tweezers are now widely used to investigate the machinery of life.

Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland paved the way towards the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind. Their revolutionary article was published in 1985 and was the foundation of Strickland’s doctoral thesis.

Using an ingenious approach, they succeeded in creating ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses without destroying the amplifying material. First they stretched the laser pulses in time to reduce their peak power, then amplified them, and finally compressed them. If a pulse is compressed in time and becomes shorter, then more light is packed together in the same tiny space – the intensity of the pulse increases dramatically.

Strickland and Mourou’s newly invented technique, called chirped pulse amplification, CPA, soon became standard for subsequent high-intensity lasers. Its uses include the millions of corrective eye surgeries that are conducted every year using the sharpest of laser beams. (Source: KVA)

Links: The Nobel Prize in Physics, The Nobel Prize Organisation, Stockholm, Sweden • Arthur Ashkin @ Physics History Network, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD, USA • Gérard Mourou, École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France • Donna Strickland, University of Waterloo, Canada • The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden

Further reading: Towards exawatt laser power and sub‐attosecond pulses – Interview with Gérard Mourou, project coordinator of the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI), Optik Photonik 5(4), December 2010; DOI: 10.1002/opph.201190145 •  T. Tajima, D. Habs & G. A. Mourou: Highest intensities, shortest pulses – Towards new physics with the Extreme Light Infrastructure, Optik Photonik 5(4), December 2010, p. 24; DOI: 10.1002/opph.201190134Editorial: Light and Life A personal perspective by Arthur Ashkin, Laser Phot. Rev. 5(1), A7–A8 (2011); DOI: 10.1002/lpor.201000518


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