Donna Strickland named first female Nobel laureate in physics in 55 years

2 Oct 2018

Still from ‘Donna Strickland talks about what made her want to study optics – OSA Stories’. Image: OpticalSociety/YouTube

The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2018 has gone to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland, the latter being the first woman to win it in 55 years.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics is to be shared among three laureates including Arthur Ashkin for his invention of ‘optical tweezers’ as well as Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland for developing the shortest and most intense laser pulses created by humankind.

The news was announced this morning (2 October) by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and was ‘focused’ on the major breakthroughs achieved in the field of laser physics, putting extremely small objects and incredibly fast processes in an entirely new light. In doing so, their breakthroughs helped us to not only achieve major advances in the field of physics, but also chemistry, biology and medicine.

Future Human

Oldest Nobel laureate

96-year-old American physicist Ashkin has become the oldest Nobel Prize laureate ever after this announcement, thanks to his work on the manipulation of microparticles starting back in the late 1960s. Over the next two decades, Ashkin used this knowledge to develop the so-called optical tweezers. Capable of manipulating particles as small as a micron in size, the technology has been instrumental in studying biological systems.

Meanwhile, Canadian physicist Strickland and her PhD supervisor Mourou, a French electrical engineer, were instrumental in the development of chirped pulse amplification. The technology works at the petawatt level, stretching a laser pulse out temporarily and spectrally prior to amplification in what is now the current state-of-the-art technique used across the world.

Originally developed as a means to increase the power of radar in the 1960s, the technology was developed in its current form in the 1980s by Strickland and Mourou.

What makes Strickland’s award even more important, however, is that she has become the first woman to be named a laureate in physics by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 55 years.

Speaking after receiving the news, Strickland said that she thought it was “crazy” to win such a prize, but highlighted the work of women in physics across the world. “We need to celebrate women physicists because they’re out there … I’m honoured to be one of those women,” she said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic