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Prime Minister Stephen Harper chats with Herzberg gold medal winning physicist Paul Corkum, left, in Ottawa on Monday. (The Canadian Press)

Groundbreaking work with lasers has earned an Ottawa physicist Canada's top science and engineering prize, worth $1 million.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented Paul Corkum with the Gerhard Herzberg gold medal at an awards ceremony Monday evening at the Chateau Laurier.

Corkum's research is helping scientists spy into what has long been the secret world of the atom.

His breakthrough involves aiming lasers at atoms and molecules to watch them move. He then records that movement in what he describes as pictures.

"Pictures — almost in the sense of a photograph — which is something you could not do in the microworld of molecules and atoms before," Corkum said.

"And that means we can make movies. So we should be able to take movies of chemistry as it occurs."

Most of Corkum's career has been spent working with the National Research Council, but he recently joined the University of Ottawa to head its new lab for attosecond research.

Working in attoseconds breaks down time into increments of one billionth of a billionth of a second.

Corkum is known for developing attosecond laser pulses — flashes of light so short that they can provide stop-action photographs of electrons moving around atoms.