A gold Nobel Prize medal

Nobel Prize in Physics awarded for work on ‘optical tweezers’

Image credit: Alamy

The Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three scientists responsible for their work developing “optical tweezers”, which allow for the manipulation of tiny particles using highly focused lasers.

Half of the nine million kroner prize money has been awarded to Arthur Ashkin, whose work manipulating microparticles using lasers in the 1960s resulted in the creation of optical tweezers. At 96, he is the oldest person to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Optical tweezers use lasers to provide small attractive or repulsive forces to physically hold and manipulate tiny objects. Ashkin first used optical tweezers to capture living bacteria without damaging them in 1987. The invention of optical tweezers has contributed significantly to our understanding of physical and biological systems.

The rest of the prize money will be shared between Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland. Mourou and Strickland co-invented chirped-pulse amplification, a technique which allows ultra-short laser pulses to be amplified to create the shortest and most intense laser pulses. This was achieved by ‘stretching’ the pulses in time, then amplifying and compressing them to increase their intensity.

Their work has given way to a huge range of research, medical and industrial applications, including optical tweezers, laser eye surgery and laser therapy for cancer.

The American Institute of Physics congratulated the three winners, commenting that: “The countless applications made possible by their work - like laser eye surgery, high-power petawatt lasers and the ability to trap and study individual viruses and bacteria - only promise to increase going forward.”

“It is also a personal delight to see Dr Strickland break the 55-year hiatus since a woman has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, making this year’s award all the more historic.”

Strickland is the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in three years. Only two other women have won the Nobel Prize in Physics: Marie Curie in 1903 for her discovery of radiation and Marie Goeppert Mayer in 1963 for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.

“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,” said Strickland, speaking to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences after the announcement. “I’m honoured to be one of those women.”

The announcement of the third female Nobel Laureate in Physics comes one day after a Cern presentation by Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University, in which he told a room of mostly young women physicists that the field was “invented and built by men” and was “becoming sexist against men”.

Last year, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to three scientists who played crucial roles in the detection of gravitational waves; a years-long international project involving more than 1,000 scientists.

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