Lists of Nobel Prizes and Laureates


Nobel Prizes in Physics

We tend to use things without thinking about them. Has it ever occurred to you that every time you listen to a CD or point with a laser pointer, you are holding the discovery of a Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics, in your hand? Well, if you haven't, you're not really alone.


Townes, Basov and Prokhorov shared the prize for their fundamental work, which led to the construction of lasers. They founded the theory of lasers and described how a laser could be built, originating from a similar appliance for microwaves called the MASER that was introduced during the '50s (The MASER has not been used as much as the laser).
However, the first functioning laser was not built by them, but by Maiman in 1960.

How does this affect you?

This was the work that resulted in the big and rather clumsy lasers built in the beginning of the '60s. Still, their theory for the laser effect is the one that fundamentally describes all lasers. Every time you listen to a CD or point with a laser pointer, you hold their discovery in your hand.


Gabor (alone) was given the prize, having founded the basic ideas of the holographic method, which is a famous and spectacular application of laser technology. At first "just" a method of creating 3-D pictures, it has since become a useful tool for the observation of vibrating objects. Much of what we today know about how musical instruments produce their tones is due to the use of holograms.

How does this affect you?

In addition to holograms that can be bought and hung on a wall, simpler holograms can be found on many other things where you might not expect to find them. Small holograms are present on many credit cards and identity cards in order to make them more difficult to forge.


Bloembergen and Schawlow received the prize for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy. One typical application of this is nonlinear optics which means methods of influencing one light beam with another and permanently joining several laser beams (not just mixing them - compare the difference between mixing two substances and making them chemically react with one another).

These phenomena mean that a light beam can in principle be steered by another light beam. If in the future someone intends to build an optical computer (that could be much faster and much more efficient in storing data), it would have to be based on a nonlinear optic.

How does this affect you?

When using optical fibers, for example in broadband applications, several of the switches and amplifiers that are used require nonlinear optical effects.


Chu, Cohen-Tannoudji and Phillips et al. received the prize for their developments of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light which is a method for inducing atoms to relinquish their heat energy to laser light and thus reach lower and lower temperatures.

When their temperature sinks very close to absolute zero, atoms form aggregates (make clumps) in a way that reveals some of the innermost aspects of nature. And that is the important application of laser cooling, namely to make us understand more of nature. Very soon after the discovery other scientists started to use the technique to further develop closely related areas.

How does this affect you?

Short answer: Not at all, today.

When the laser came in 1960 no one, except for a small group of physicians, knew anything about its applications. Laser technology was a solution looking for its problem.


Alferov and Kroemer were given the prize for their development within the field of semiconductor physics, where they had studied the type of substances that was first used to build semiconductor lasers, that is, the kind of miniature lasers that today have become the cheapest, lightest and smallest. The idea is to produce both the light source and energy supply and place the mirrors in one crystal (less than 1 mm facet, with many sequences). This has become not only the basis for many cheap and portable appliances, but also the foundation in optical information networks.

How does this affect you?
The CD player, laser writer, laser pointer and the bar code reader the cashier at the supermarket uses, are all based on their discovery.

Stimulated Emission - 1917
Albert Einstein first proposed the process that makes lasers possible called "Stimulated Emission."
Holography - 1947
Gabor developed the theory of holography, that requires laser light for its realization.
He received the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work. »
Maser - 1954
The first papers about the maser were published in 1954 as a result of investigations carried out simultaneously and independently by Townes and his co-workers at Columbia University in New York and by Basov and Prokhorov at the Lebedev Institute in Moscow. Their work continued throughout the '60s and the '70s.
For this work they were awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics.  »
Laser - 1958
The optical maser or the laser dates from 1958, when the possibilities of applying the maser principle in the optical region were analyzed by Schawlow and Townes as well as in the Lebedev Institute. Laser spectroscopy was developed by Schawlow and his co-workers at Stanford University and, around the same time, Bloembergen and his co-workers developed nonlinear optics which is a very special application of laserspectroscopy.
For this they were awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics. »
Ruby Laser - 1960
The first laser was operating in 1960. It was a ruby laser generating strong pulses of red light.
Semiconductor - 1963
Alferov and Kroemer proposed in 1963, independently of each other, the principle for semiconductor heterostructures to be used later in semiconductor laser which today, by far, is the most common laser.
For this work they were awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics.  »
Corning Glass - 1970
Optic fiber made of corning glass has such low losses that telephone calls and telecommunication can be transferred for kilometers with the help of laser light.
Laser Cooling - 1980
In the '80s Chu, Cohen-Tannoudji and Phillips worked with laser cooling of atoms.
For this work they were awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics.  »

The physicist Albert Einstein had described the theory of stimulated emission as early as 1917, but it would still take 30 years before engineers began to utilize this principle for practical purposes. Scientists were amazed by this technical breakthrough but laser technology itself had no real purpose. This is not exceptional, discoveries may need time before being put to use. Today laser is used in communication, industry, medicine, and environmental care and research. Laser has become one of the most powerful tools for scientists in physics, chemistry, biology and medicine throughout the world. One area that is considered to be very interesting is in the different methods to cool and capture atoms by using laser. We don't know yet what this knowledge and technology will be used for in the future, but we do know that future applications will be based on today's research.




First published 19 December 2002


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