A Canadian woman was one of three scientists jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics this week, “for creating groundbreaking tools from beams of light.”
Not literally groundbreaking, you understand. At least, I don’t think so, but I can’t rule it out. Let’s take a quick look at what I do know: It’ll be quick because, as with all branches of Physics, what I know isn’t much.
Strickland’s collaborator, Gérard Mourou, a French physicist, shares their half of the monetary prize. The Guardian notes that their seminal paper came out 33 years ago, in 1985.
[Their] work . . . paved the way for the shortest, most intense laser beams ever created.
Their technique, named chirped pulse amplification,
is now used in laser machining and
enables doctors to perform millions of corrective laser eye surgeries every year.
The other half of the prize goes to American physicist Arthur Ashkin “for his development of “optical tweezers”, a tractor beam-like technology that allows scientists to grab atoms, viruses and bacteria in finger-like laser-beams.” He published his landmark paper 31 years ago, in 1987.
Now, I don’t typically hang on the Nobel Committee’s announcements, but some things come to mind.
First, as only the third woman in history to win the Physics prize (Marie Curie was the first, to give you an idea of the calibre of the duo that just became a trio), and as the only living female Nobel Laureate in Physics, Donna Strickland sounds like a Canadian National Treasure to me. So it is written; so let it be done.
Second, Mourou might well be a French Trésor National and Ashkin definitely sounds like an American National Treasure — at 96, he’s still working on scientific papers — but someone else will have to take care of them. Ashkin might exhibit a slight tendency to grumpiness or self-promotion, but if saints (as made by God and recognized by the Church) don’t need to be saints (in the sense of easy to live with), why should Nobel Laureates be?
He [Ashkin] had previously complained
of being overlooked for the Nobel prize in 1997
when another Bell Labs researcher,
the US physicist Steven Chu,
shared the award for cooling and trapping atoms with lasers.
– The Guardian
Third, it can take a while to see how sciencey things will turn out. For one thing, it appears that Ashkin worked for at least a decade on his optical tweezer thingy before he published his paper. For another, I’m guessing a lot of scientific papers appeared between 1985 and 1987. I expect most were worthy of being published, but not all of them reflected work that led to a Nobel.
Fourth, this award comes hard on the heels of a conversation on our recent trip to Ireland, where our program leader rattled off how many Irish Nobel Laureates there had been in Literature (four) and who they were (Heaney, Beckett, Shaw, Yeats), and I realized that I couldn’t do something comparable for Canada, although I had a vague sense that we do better in Physics than in Literature.
Fifth, although I haven’t heard of chirped pulse amplification, I have at least heard of corrective laser eye surgery. I’ve never heard of using finger-like lasers to grab and lift an atom, virus, or bacteria, or anything like it (I mean, tractor beams? Seriously?), and it looks as if they’ve been at it for half my lifetime.
So I’d say, “What will they think of next?” but given when this research was done, I’m wondering, maybe just a hair uneasily . . .
“What else have they already thought of?”
Postscript Pie Chart
Just in case you were wondering: Together, chemistry and physics account for half of the Nobel prizes won by Canadians; with medicine/physiology, that rises to almost 3 out of 4. See all 26 names, here.