US scientist oldest to win Nobel Prize

Telephone interview with Arthur Ashkin

"When I described catching living things with light people said: 'Don’t exaggerate Ashkin'." Arthur Ashkin reluctantly took a break from his current research to talk about the "old research" that led to his breakthrough discovery and the optical tweezers that have earned him the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. Listen to the full telephone interview!

Posted by Nobel Prize on Tuesday, 2 October 2018

STOCKHOLM — American scientist Arthur Ashkin thought he might have a chance to win a Nobel Prize a few decades ago.

But the 96-year-old from Rumson, New Jersey, said he had “given up worrying” about such things a long time ago.

That changed early Tuesday when Ashkin learned that he and two others had won the Nobel Prize in physics for their work with lasers.

Ashkin is the oldest person to win a Nobel. He’s retired from Bell Labs but is still doing research. He’s currently working on ideas related to solar power, prompted by President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.

At age 96, Ashkin is six years older than Leonid Hurwicz was when he won the economics prize in 2007. The economics winner in 2012, Lloyd Shapley, was 89.

But the economics prize was not part of the awards established by industrialist Alfred Nobel’s will; it was later established by Sweden’s central bank in Nobel’s honor.

The oldest winners of the prizes established by the will were 88 — Doris Lessing for literature and Raymond Davis for physics.

The other Nobel physics laureate Gerard Mourou says he finds it difficult to describe his emotions at winning.

“It’s something that sort of never happens at this level,” he said in a video released by France’s Polytechnique school, where he is professor.

“I am very, very happy to share this distinction with my former student Donna Strickland and also to share it with Art Ashkin, for whom I have a lot of respect.”

“We invented a technique that made the laser extremely powerful,” he said. “With the technology we have developed, laser power has been increased about a million times, maybe even a billion.”

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has paid tribute to the French co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, saying the award highlights French research and its applications.

Macron tweeted on Tuesday “we are proud of Gerard Mourou”, the 74-year-old co-winner with Arthur Ashkin of the United States and Canada’s Donna Strickland.

The three scientists have been awarded for advances in laser physics.

Strickland and Mourou helped develop short and intense laser pulses that have broad industrial and medical applications.

Powerful laser
Two of Tuesday’s Nobel Prize winners enabled new studies of matter by allowing scientists to produce more powerful bursts of laser light, an official of the American Institute of Physics says.

“We needed a new way to create the peak power of laser pulses,” said Michael Moloney, chief executive officer of the group. The breakthough came with the work of Mourou and Strickland, he said.

While laser eye surgery is the most familiar application of their work, it has also let scientists probe fundamental forces acting within matter at very high temperatures and pressures, Moloney said.

The other research honored by the prize — the invention by Ashkin of a way to use lasers to manipulate tiny objects — has let scientists study how proteins operate in the body and how they interact, Moloney said.

Noting that Strickland is the first woman in 55 years to win a physics Nobel, Moloney said that gap is “way too long.”

Drought ends
Strickland says her first thought on hearing she’d won the physics prize was “it’s crazy.”

Speaking by phone shortly after the announcement was made in Stockholm on Tuesday, Strickland said: “You do always wonder if it’s real.”

The Canadian said she was honored to be one of the small number of female winners of the physics Nobel so far.

“Obviously we need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there,” she said.
Strickland added that “hopefully in time it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate, maybe.”

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics to Strickland has ended a drought for women winning any of the prestigious prizes.

Strickland is the first woman to be named a Nobel laureate since 2015. She is also only the third to have won the physics prize — the first was Marie Curie in 1903.

The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences on Tuesday awarded half the 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize to Ashkin, Mourou and Strickland.

The academy says Ashkin developed “optical tweezers” that can grab tiny particles such as viruses without damaging them.

Strickland and Mourou helped develop short and intense laser pulses that have broad industrial and medical applications.

The Nobel Prize for physics honors researchers for discoveries in phenomena as enormous as The Big Bang and as tiny as single particles of light.

p: wjg

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