MTPR

3 Scientists Win Nobel Prize In Physics

Oct 2, 2018
Originally published on October 2, 2018 6:31 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Three people share this year's Nobel Prize in physics. They are being honored for, quote, "groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics." Two of the three worked together. One worked independently. And one is a woman, the first to receive a Nobel in physics in decades. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel is here.

Geoff, good morning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. The pairing first - Gerard Mourou, a French scientist, and Donna Strickland, a Canadian, both of whom did much of their work at the University of Rochester. What is that work?

BRUMFIEL: They did something called chirped pulse amplification. This is a technique that allows you to take a pulse of laser light and make it more powerful. And that was a real problem early on in the development of the laser. You know, lasers were developed decades ago. But then they sort of got brighter and brighter, and then they stalled out. And this technique really allowed them to grow brighter still. And that helped them find many applications.

INSKEEP: OK. And we're going to talk about the applications in a moment. But I do want to ask, how big a deal is it to see Strickland - to see her name attached to the Nobel Prize in physics?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this is only the third Nobel Prize in physics to go to a woman in the past 115 years.

INSKEEP: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: The last one was in 1963. And so Donna Strickland was asked about this in the press conference. And even she seemed a bit surprised by that fact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You are the third woman ever getting the Nobel Prize in physics.

DONNA STRICKLAND: Is that all? Really?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What's your comment on that?

STRICKLAND: Well, OK. I thought there might have been more, but I couldn't think.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: But - it's true.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you'd think.

BRUMFIEL: There's only been two others, in 1963 and 1903. And there have been many good female physicists who, it's been widely held, were overlooked for the prize.

INSKEEP: Does this suggest an advancement for women physicists?

BRUMFIEL: I'd say it's more like the Nobel Prize is trying to stay relevant. In the hard sciences especially, Internet entrepreneurs, in sort of this new age we're in, have started giving their own prizes. This year, one of those prices went to a woman named Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who had herself been overlooked for a Nobel Prize. That prize was for $3 million. The Nobels are just for around a million.

INSKEEP: Oh.

BRUMFIEL: So you know, I think the Nobel Prizes are falling behind the times, and they recognize that.

INSKEEP: That's really interesting.

OK. There is a third Nobel Prize winner. Arthur Ashkin is his name - Bell Labs in New Jersey, the place where he did much of his work. Optical tweezers is the phrase in front of my eyes here. What are optical tweezers?

BRUMFIEL: They are actually exactly what they sound like. It's using lasers, which is light, to hold physical things - objects.

INSKEEP: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: And that actually works, believe it or not. Light can exert a little bit of pressure. And so if you tune the lasers just right, you can manipulate very, very small things.

INSKEEP: Really tiny particles when you're working on things.

BRUMFIEL: Individual atoms, even.

INSKEEP: Wow. And so what are the practical applications of the work of these three people?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the optical tweezers are used in a variety of applications for moving around small, biological molecules - proteins, DNA, things like that. And also, in physics, it's used pretty widely. And then the lasers, the main sort of public use - most common use is laser eye surgery.

INSKEEP: Oh.

BRUMFIEL: Chirp pulse amplification gets used in laser eye surgery...

INSKEEP: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: ...To this day.

INSKEEP: Changed the lives of many people over the last many years.

BRUMFIEL: Unfortunately, not mine.

INSKEEP: OK.

BRUMFIEL: Still wearing the glasses.

INSKEEP: OK. All right.

Geoff, thanks very much for your 20/20 vision on the Nobel Prize in physics. Appreciate that.

BRUMFIEL: No problem.

INSKEEP: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "EPOCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.