Physics Nobel awarded to Donna Strickland, third woman in history to win

Strickland, whose research helped advance the field of laser science, is the only living female Nobel laureate for physics.

  • Strickland, a 59-year-old Canadian physicist, helped develop a technique that led to many laser technologies used today.
  • Two other women have won the Nobel for physics; one in 1963, the other in 1903.
  • Strickland shares the award and $1 million prize with two other scientists, Arthur Ashkin and Gerard Mourou.

The 2018 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to three physicists, including one female, for their work in advancing laser science. It marks the third time a woman in physics has won the award.

Donna Strickland, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada and self-described 'laser jock', shares the award and a $1 million prize with Arthur Ashkin, a retired American physicist, and Gerard Mourou, a professor at the École Polytechnique in France and University of Michigan.

In the 1980s, Strickland and Mourou developed a technique called chirped pulse amplification, which produces ultra-short and "ultra-sharp" laser pulses through a three-part process that involves stretching, amplifying and compressing a laser beam. The pair outlined their landmark research, which led to the development of many medical tools including those used to perform laser eye surgery, in a 1985 paper. It was Strickland's first time being published.

Ashkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for developing laser tweezers (or optical tweezers), now a widely used technology that allows scientists to manipulate atom-sized objects by focusing laser beams on them.

"Dr Ashkin's work on optical tweezers could be something out of a sci-fi book," Clara Nellist, particle physicist at the ATLAS experiment at CERN, told Gizmodo. "He took the idea of a tractor beam and shrunk it down to the microscopic scale in order to be able to capture individual viruses and bacteria."

Female laureates: A very short list

Strickland, who's the only living female Nobel laureate for physics, said it's crazy to think she's only the third woman to have won the prize, the other two being Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who won in 1963 for her work on atomic structure, and Marie Curie who won in 1903 for her research into radioactivity.

"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. I'm honored to be one of those women," she said in a phone interview with the Royal Swedish Academy.

Strickland wasn't the only scientist surprised by the very short list of female laureates in physics.

"The most thrilling thing for me is to see Donna Strickland share this year's prize," Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, told The Guardian. "It is quite shocking to know that she is only the third woman to win a physics Nobel ever... It is also quite delicious that this comes just a few days after certain controversial and misogynistic comments made at a conference at CERN about women in physics."

Al-Khalili was referring to comments made by Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University during a presentation he gave at CERN, the nuclear research center and particle accelerator in Geneva, in which he said physics was "invented and built by men, it's not by invitation."

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