“I thought there might have been more,” Strickland said, reacting to her win. She shares the prize with two other laser physicists.
The 2018 Nobel prize in physics has been awarded to three scientists — including one woman — for advancing the science of lasers and creating extremely useful tools out of laser beams.
The winners include Arthur Ashkin, 96, a retired American physicist who worked Bell Labs; Gerard Mourou, 74, now at the École Polytechnique in France and University of Michigan; and Donna Strickland, 59, now at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
These scientists are responsible for two important inventions. One is laser tweezers, which allow scientists to manipulate microscopic particles (often viruses and bacteria) within a laser beam. The second is a technology that led to the rapid increase of laser beam intensity, which has allowed for myriad laser-based tools, including the beams commonly used in laser eye surgery.
Ashkin, who took half of the $1 million prize, invented the optical (i.e., laser) tweezers in his work with Bell Labs in the 1980s. Mourou and Strickland worked on laser amplification at the University of Rochester, also in the 1980s.
Astonishingly, Strickland is just the third woman to have ever won the Nobel prize in physics. The prize has not been awarded to a woman since 1963 when Maria Goeppert-Mayer won for her work on atomic structure. That was 55 years ago! The only time a woman was awarded the prize before that was in 1903 when Marie Curie won for her work on radioactivity.
During the Nobel Prize press conference Tuesday morning, Strickland was reminded by a reporter she was the just third woman to win, and immediately responded, “Is that all, really? I thought there might have been more.”
She went on: “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there. Hopefully, in time, it will start to move forward at a faster rate.” The Nobel committee has long been criticized for neglecting to honor women (who have been denied prizes, despite being behindsome incredible discoveries in recent decades.)
Why laser physics is worthy of a Nobel Prize
The Nobel prizes award discoveries and inventions that lead to the betterment of humanity. Strickland, and co-inventor Gerard Mourou, did just that. After lasers, which are focused beams of light, were first invented in the 1960s, the power and intensity they could reach quickly plateaued. That’s where Strickland and Mourou came in.
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