Nobel Prize in Physics 2018

Two weeks ago, the Nobel prize in physics was announced to be awarded to three physicists for two topics, both dealing with laser physics. One half was awarded to Arthur Ashkin for his invention and perfection of the optical tweezers, which many feel to be long overdue since he was not included in the prize for laser cooling with Steven Chu. The second half was awarded to Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland together for their invention of the method of Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA) in the 80s, which revolutionized high-power lasers since then enabling countless discoveries.

I can’t say much personally about the award to Ashkin except for what I’ve read. But regarding the award to Mourou and Strickland I can say quite a lot. For my Bachelor’s, master’s, PhD, and current PostDoc I’ve always and exclusively used lasers that rely crucially on the CPA technique, and my PhD work relied very specifically on technical aspects of such a laser system. Even further, Mourou founded Center for Ultrafast Optical Sciences (CUOS) at Michigan where I did my Bachelor’s work, was a intellectual founder of the Extreme-Light Infrastructure (ELI) project in Europe where I was associated for my PhD, and is currently at Ecole Polytechnique nearby where I currently am doing a PostDoc. I’ve seen him present once in 2015 and many of the people where I currently work have interacted with him much more.

The positives of this award are great. Donna Strickland is the first female physics laureate in 55 years and received the award for work she did during her PhD; both challenges to the view that you need to be a famous powerful male physicist to win the prize. This prize brings a lot of attention to the field of ultrafast laser physics, which there hasn’t been much in the past.

In fact, if you were to ask me before the prize was awarded which people in my field were most likely to win the prize I would not have included Mourou or Strickland. They are both great physicists of course, but I can name many others, including women, who I would say have a more prolific and impactful career over many many years including more than one discovery. This would include Ursula Keller, Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapetyn, Ferenc Krausz, Paul Corkum, and many others. But the fact is that all of those mentioned rely on lasers using the CPA technique to do their work.

So overall it is a reminder that the prize is not given, at least this year, for a career, but for a single worthy discovery. But secondly, I would predict that the prize will be given in the coming years to one of those I mentioned, or someone else that uses the CPA technique. They had to give the prize for the enabling discovery first, but more are coming in the field.

It’s an exciting (and motivating) prize for me, to be involved both technically with the work that I have done, but also to be involved just very indirectly with the individuals to have gotten the award. It means nothing about me personally, but is still exciting. It’s also a reminder that a prize given to one or a few people is in no way a summary of the best researchers in the field, and is just the opposite: a prize given specifically to one or a few people in recognition of a specific work. And there are a limited number of these prizes, but many many more scientists doing important work that will never be recognized with such a prize.

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