(STOCKHOLM) — Three scientists from the United States, Canada and France won the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for work with lasers described as revolutionary and bringing science fiction into reality.
The American, Arthur Ashkin, entered the record books of the Nobel Prizes by becoming the oldest laureate at age 96. Donna Strickland, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, became the first woman to win a Nobel in three years and is only the third to have won the prize for physics.
Frenchman Gerard Mourou of the Ecole Polytechnique and University of Michigan will share half of the 9 million kronor ($1.01 million) the prize carries with Strickland; Ashkin gets the other half.
Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences, which chose the winners, said Ashkin’s development of “optical tweezers” that can grab tiny particles such as viruses without damaging them realized “an old dream of science fiction — using the radiation pressure of light to move physical objects.”
The tweezers are “extremely important for measuring small forces on individual molecules, small objects, and this has been very interesting in biology, to understand how things like muscle tissue work, what are the molecule motors behind the muscle tissue,” said David Haviland of the academy’s Nobel committee.
Strickland and Mourou helped develop short and intense laser pulses that have broad industrial and medical applications, including laser eye surgery and highly precise machine cutting. The academy said their 1985 article on the technique was “revolutionary.”
“With the technique we have developed, laser power has been increased about a million times, maybe even a billion,” Mourou said in a video statement released by Ecole Polytechnique.
Strickland’s award was the first Nobel Prize in physics to go to a woman since 1963, when it was won by Maria Goeppert-Mayer; the only other woman to win for physics was Marie Curie in 1903.
“Obviously, we need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there. And hopefully in time, it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate, maybe,” Strickland said in a phone call with the academy after the prize announcement.
On winning the Nobel, Strickland told The Associated Press: “I just find the whole thing surreal.”
“I mean, I sort of went to the university thinking ‘Oh, I just want to do the world’s best Ph.D,'” she said. “And in the end I got to do that. And now, obviously, even the whole world agrees with me that I got to do that.”
Michael Moloney, CEO of the American Institute of Physics, praised all the laureates.
“It is also a personal delight to see Dr. Strickland break the 55-year hiatus since a woman has been awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, making this year’s award all the more historic,” Moloney said.
He credited the work of all three with “expanding what is possible at the extremes of time, space and forms of matter.”
Ashkin’s tweezers can be used to hold and manipulate proteins, DNA and other biomolecules to study their mechanical properties or stimulate them, said Erwin Peterman, a physicist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who called the award “a great recognition for this visionary scientist who was ahead of his time.”
Ashkin could not immediately be reached for comment. The Swedish academy identified him as affiliated with Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey. Previous news reports on his work said he retired in 1992 from the giant research complex, which later was spun off by Bell and mostly closed.
On Monday, American James Allison and Japan’s Tasuku Honjo won the Nobel medicine prize for groundbreaking work in fighting cancer with the body’s own immune system.
The winner or winners of the Nobel chemistry prize will be announced Wednesday, followed by the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize, which is not technically a Nobel, will be announced Oct. 8.
Heintz reported from Moscow. Malcolm Ritter in New York, Samuel Petrequin in Paris and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.