Three scientists have been awarded the 2018 Nobel prize in physics for creating groundbreaking tools from beams of light.
The American physicist Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou from France, and Donna Strickland in Canada will share the 9m Swedish kronor (£770,000) prize announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Tuesday. Strickland is the first female physics laureate for 55 years.
Ashkin, who at 96 is the oldest winner of any Nobel prize, told the committee that he may not be able to give any interviews because he was “very busy” on his latest scientific paper. He 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.
Through his research in the 1970s and 80s, Ashkin showed how the radiation pressure of light could be harnessed to move physical objects without burning them, realizing “an old dream of science fiction,” according to the Swedish Academy. In 1987, Ashkin published a landmark paper showing how optical tweezers could capture living bacteria without harming them.
Around the same time, Mourou and Strickland demonstrated how to create ultrashort, intense bursts of laser light by stretching, amplifying and finally recompressing light waves. Mourou said he had a key insight into solving the problem while riding on a ski lift at Bristol Mountain resort in Rochester, New York. The pair’s seminal paper in 1985 was Strickland’s first as an academic.
Amanda Wright, associate professor at the faculty of engineering, University of Nottingham, said she was “delighted” with the prize announcement. She said a recently-funded collaboration between Nottingham, Heriot-Watt and the University of Glasgow will use optical tweezers to explore how cells talk to their surroundings and vice versa, “and how these interactions affect disease progression.”
Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, added: “The most thrilling thing for me is to see Donna Strickland share this year’s prize. It is quite shocking to know that she is only the third woman to win a physics Nobel ever,” said “It is also quite delicious that this comes just a few days after certain controversial and misogynistic comments made at a conference at Cern about women in physics.