For the first time in 55 year, a woman has won the Nobel Prize in physics. Donna Strickland, a physicist from the University of Waterloo in Canada, won a part share in the award for her discovery of a way to stretch and amplify laser beams.
One half of the prize was awarded to Arthur Ashkin, a physicist who created a real-life tractor beam that uses a laser to capture and hold small objects. The other half was shared between Gérard Mourou, from France’s École Polytechnique, and Strickland.
Strickland is only the third woman to have ever won the prize in physics, following Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who claimed the award in 1963 for her work on nuclei structure, and Marie Curie, who won the physics prize in 1903. Strickland seemed surprised to learn that she was the first woman to claim the award in over half a century.
“Really? Is that all? I thought there might have been more,” Strickland said during a press briefing announcing the prize winners. “Obviously we need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there. I don’t know what to say. I’m honored to be one of those women.”
Strickland and Mourou were recognized for work the pair did in the 1980s while at the University of Rochester, when Strickland was still a graduate student. At the time, physicists were trying to figure out how to amplify super high-powered lasers, but all of the methods they had tried would destroy the materials used to amplify them before they got to the intended strength.
Strickland and Mourou’s workaround was to stretch the laser first using over a mile-long fiber optic cable, amplifying it, then rapidly decompressing it again, creating a short burst of laser with a super high powered intensity.
“Different people were trying to get short pulses amplified in different ways,” Strickland said. “It was thinking outside the box to stretch first and then amplify.”
This technique, known as chirped pulse amplification or CPA, enabled the development of dozens of laser-based tools, including the kind of lasers used for corrective eye surgery, lasers used for drilling, and data storage.
Strickland’s historic win comes just days after the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prizes in chemistry, physics and economics, decided it would call on nominators for the 2019 prizes to consider gender, geography, and topic when making nominations, according to Nature. Since the Nobel Prize inception in 1901, only three percent of science prize winners have been women. It also followed a controversial presentation from one of the world’s leading physicists claiming there is no sexism in the field. Recognizing the worthy contributions of women scientists is one way to work towards combating the discrimination that about half of women working in STEM jobs report experiencing.