Groundbreaking ways of manipulating light win trio the 2018 physics Nobel

The prize honors the inventions of optical tweezers and chirped pulse amplification

nobel medal physics

Three scientists who invented innovative ways to manipulate light have won the Nobel Prize in physics. The 9-million-Swedish-kronor award (about $1 million) will be doled out to Arthur Ashkin of Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J., Gérard Mourou of École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, and Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada, the Nobel Prize committee announced October 2.

Ashkin, who will receive half of the prize, invented optical tweezers, a tool that can grab particles, viruses and even living cells with beams of light and move them around. The tweezers were first used to trap living bacteria without harming them in 1987. The tools are now used in laboratories worldwide to investigate the inner lives of cells and DNA.

The technique also led to a method to trap and cool individual atoms with lasers, which won the 1997 Nobel prize in physics.

The other half of the prize will be split between Mourou and Strickland, who invented a way to compress light into unprecedentedly short and intense pulses. Their technique, called chirped pulse amplification, takes a short laser pulse, stretches it, amplifies it and squeezes it again to create ultrafast beams of light.

Strickland, who was a Ph.D. student at the time, is the third woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics. “I am honored to be one of those women,” she said during the news conference announcing the prize. “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there.”

Read the full story about Ashkin’s, Mourou’s and Strickland’s Nobel Prize–winning work.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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