Arthur Ashkin


Telephone interview, October 2018

“When I described catching living things with light people said: ‘Don’t exaggerate Ashkin'”

Arthur Ashkin took a break from his current research to talk about the “old research” that led to his breakthrough discovery and earned him a Nobel Prize. Listen to the telephone interview with Arthur Ashkin following the announcement of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, 2 October 2018. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.

Interview transcript

Arthur Ashkin: Hello.

Adam Smith: Good morning.

AA: Yeah, who is this?

AS: Well my name is Adam Smith, and I am calling from, which is the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Sweden.


AS: First of all, many congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.

AA: OK, thank you.

AS: May I ask how it feels to be the oldest ever awarded Laureate?

AA: [Laughs] I didn’t realise I’m the oldest ever! So I just about made it, huh? Because you can’t be dead and win … If you’re a winner of the National Inventors Hall of Fame you can be dead. I won that prize a couple of years ago and I was very proud of that. That is the most, I would say, most important prize I’ve won.

AS: May I ask, are you still experimenting in your home lab?

AA: I am. In fact I’m writing a paper now that you guys are disturbing in my … I’m going to send it into Science and hope that they’ll accept it.

AS: Well I guess that’s the secret of a successful research career, to concentrate on work rather than distractions.

AA: Well that’s my hobby, more or less. I was interested in science since I was a kid, so I tell my wife that’s the only thing that I’m really good at.

AS: And presumably you’re amazed and delighted to see the variety of applications that optical tweezers have been put to?

AA: Well, I anticipated that it was pretty important from the day go. The thing that I … well one of my heroes is this guy, this Dutchman Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and he’s the guy who discovered animalcules. And he kept writing to the Royal Society telling them and sending them pictures, and nobody paid any attention to him until very much later they wanted a sample of his microscope and he said no, he said if you want one you have to do it yourself. He’s a hero, and there are other guys like Michael Faraday, who’s another one of my heroes.

AS: It’s good to have scientific heroes. So you knew when you developed them that you were developing the instrument which would allow you to probe molecular processes?

AA: Yes. Well look, I was interested in trapping molecules with light a long time ago. My famous paper in 1970 – that’s the most famous paper I ever wrote. In that I mention [unclear] molecules with light. But I never thought living things – light was supposed to kill tissue. They used light to heal wounds and it was considered to be deadly. That was very much a surprise. That was a big surprise and once I … look, well I should, I’ve got a lot of old stories to tell about what happened. When I described catching living things with light people said, ‘Don’t exaggerate Ashkin’!

AS: You certainly weren’t exaggerating. How exciting. Well, we look forward to hearing some more of these stories. Will you be coming to Stockholm in December to receive the …

AA: I’ll come if I… if I can.

AS: Sure. Are you going to celebrate?

AA: Well, look, I’m writing a paper now and I’m not celebrating about old stuff. I’ve got something new and important. I’m working on solar energy and I think I’ve gotten some important stuff. And the world badly needs science in climate change.

AS: Indeed.


AS: Thank you very much indeed, that’s an important message. I very much appreciate you talking to me. Thank you and, once again, many congratulations.

AA: OK, you’re welcome.

AS: Thank you. Bye bye.

AS: OK, bye.

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