Canadian among trio awarded Nobel Prize in Physics

Donna Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, became the first woman in 55 years and the third ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, sharing it with a scientist from the U.S. and another from France for their work in laser physics.

'Women have come a long way,' says Donna Strickland, who wins for work on lasers

An artist's sketch depicts Arthur Ashkin, left, Gérard Mourou, centre, and Donna Strickland, who were awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday. (Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Media AB 2018)

Donna Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, on Tuesday became the first woman in 55 years and the third ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, sharing it with an American scientist and another from France for their work in laser physics.

The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences on Tuesday said half the nearly $1.29-million Cdn prize goes to Arthur Ashkin of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, and the other half will be shared by Strickland and Gérard Mourou.

The academy said Ashkin, who is the oldest person ever named as a laureate at 96, developed "optical tweezers" that can grab tiny particles such as viruses without damaging them.

Strickland, 59, and Mourou, 74, helped develop short and intense laser pulses that have "opened up new areas of research and led to broad industrial and medical applications," it said.

3rd female laureate in physics

Strickland is the first female Nobel laureate to be named in three years and is only the third woman winning in physics: Polish-French physicist Marie Curie earned the award in 1903 and German-born American theoretical physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

"Obviously we need to celebrate women physicists, because we're out there. And hopefully in time it'll start to move forward at a faster rate, maybe," Strickland said in a phone call with the academy after the prize announcement.

Canadian Nobel laureate Donna Strickland talks about Maria Goeppert Mayer, the last woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, in 1963 1:03

Strickland later talked about citing Goeppert Mayer's work in her own thesis, and the 1963 prize winner's lack of a paid position in her field for many years.

"In 1939, she predicted that an atom could absorb two photons. Nobody had thought of that before, and It was a woman who thought of it and changed how we do that area of science," Strickland said at a news conference in Waterloo.

"That's not what she won the Nobel Prize for, though, the nuclear shell [model], and yet she just followed her husband from job to job while he became professor and went up the ranks and moved to universities to do that as a chemist.

'Women have come a long way'

"And she would be allowed to teach if she wanted to, and she was allowed to have an office if she wanted to sit there and do some research on her own, but didn't get paid until the '50s. And yet her work I cited was from 1939.

"And so, obviously women have come a long way. I feel I get paid the same, and I felt like all along I've always been paid the same and treated the same," Strickland said.

A 2011 profile on the University of Waterloo's website said Strickland described herself as a "laser jock" who enjoyed the competitive rush, and was working on creating the shortest laser pulse with the biggest punch.

Strickland and Mourou worked together while Strickland was a PhD student at the University of Rochester in New York. Mourou was a physics professor heading research into ultra-fast lasers, and in 1985, Mourou was lead author of a scientific paper detailing chirped pulse amplification (CPA) — a technique producing ultra-short and intense laser pulses.

More powerful lasers

Their research enabled new studies of matter by allowing scientists to produce more powerful bursts of laser light, said Michael Moloney, chief executive officer of the American Institute of Physics.
 
While laser eye surgery is the most familiar application of their work, Moloney said, it has also let scientists probe fundamental forces acting within matter at very high temperatures and pressures.

"With the technique we have developed, laser power has been increased about a million times, maybe even a billion," Mourou said in a video statement released by Ecole Polytechnique.

Ashkin's work, which pinpointed 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. 

His "tweezers" can be used to hold and manipulate proteins, DNA and other biomolecules to study their mechanical properties or stimulate them, said Erwin Peterman, a physicist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who called the award "a great recognition for this visionary scientist who was ahead of his time."

Awards still to be announced

On Monday, American James Allison and Japan's Tasuku Honjo won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for groundbreaking work in fighting cancer with the body's own immune system.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be announced on Wednesday, followed by the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The economics prize, which is not technically a Nobel, will be announced on Oct. 8.

The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace have been awarded since 1901 in accordance with the will of Swedish business tycoon Alfred Nobel, whose discovery of dynamite generated a vast fortune used to fund the prize.

However, for the first time in decades, no Nobel Prize in Literature will be given this year after a scandal over sexual misconduct allegations saw a string of members leave the board of the Swedish Academy that awards it.

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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