“It is the one time in my life that I worked very, very hard!”
Donna Strickland never worked as hard or had as much fun as when she was performing the research that led her to the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. Listen to the telephone interview with Donna Strickland following the announcement of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, 2 October 2018. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Transcript of the interview
Donna Strickland: Hello.
Adam Smith: Hello, is this Donna Strickland?
DS: Yes it is.
AS: Hi, this is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, the official website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.
AS: First of all, congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
DS: Thank you very much.
AS: What was your immediate thought on hearing the news?
DS: Well, obviously, I think like many people said we wondered if it was a prank. I knew it was the right day – it would have been a cruel prank, but that is what I was thinking.
AS: Were you sleeping when the call came?
DS: Yes, 5 in the morning!
AS: It’s fairly amazing, I don’t know if there’s another case of somebody being awarded a Nobel Prize for their very first scientific paper. That’s an extraordinary …
DS: No, I don’t know that either. [Laughs] No, I know, I sort of feel like I just lucked into this whole thing. I have to say that. Obviously I did luck into the whole thing!
AS: You must have been a naturally gifted experimentalist. Where did it come from do you think, the gift?
DS: I don’t know, I mean it was … it was just a fun thing to do, and so I enjoyed putting many hours into it. It is the one time in my life that I worked very, very hard! And … but… you know, it was a fun time in the field of short-pulse lasers, and it was a fun group to be in and… I don’t know, I put in the long hours and it was fun most of the time. Most of the time!
AS: It’s the classic vision of the experimental physicist, sort of tinkering around in the lab.
DS: That’s right.
AS: And, of course, you are the first female Laureate for 55 years.
DS: Yes, and Goeppert-Mayer, yes, I couldn’t think of her name.
AS: That’s right.
DS: Marie Curie everyone comes to, but I was thinking “Oh, I even quoted her”. I cited her work in my thesis.
AS: Right, that’s a nice connection.
AS: What message do you think it sends to people?
DS: I don’t know how to answer that because I’m not a woman whose been looking at these prizes thinking “Why isn’t there a woman?” I sort of haven’t thought like that, but I know a lot of people, I guess, do look at that. I don’t know, I hope … I mean I certainly tell the Maria Goeppert-Mayer story and I’m happy that life isn’t like that. I’m glad there were trailblazers like her and Marie Curie.
AS: That’s right, because she …
DS: She didn’t get to have a paid job for the longest time, right? She didn’t really get to be recognised as a scientist, even though, you know, she was doing incredible work, right. I think she won hers in the 50s, right, and yet …
AS: It was ’63 she was awarded.
DS: ’63. And the work I cite for her started the whole field of multi-photon ionisation, which was the first thing that our laser was used for in my thesis, and that work was done in 1939. It’s not what she won the Nobel Prize for, but again it totally changed what could be done, right?
DS: And you just think “How can you go more than 20 years?” You know, I don’t know, that was sort of, not to get a Nobel Prize, but just even be recognised as a scientist. So I think things have totally changed. So I think it will come around and change.
AS: Yeah, yeah. I suppose one thing that is going to happen is that you’re going to be very much in demand. How do you feel about that?
DS: Yes, I’m a little scared about that because I was talking to a previous Nobel Prize winner a few years back and he told me how he flew 100,000 miles, you know. And scientists don’t even get to fly first class so that’s hard. [Laughs] Like in a year, like you know, and my goodness that’s a lot! So, you know, I don’t know.
AS: Well maybe put in your bid early if you want to go first class. Yeah, well anyway, I guess …
DS: I’m not sounding like a Nobel Prize winner at this point I realise!
AS: I think you sound exactly like a Nobel Prize winner at this point. This is a pretty surprising point to be at, I mean for anybody. It’s a … you only hear just a few minutes ago. Let me ask just very briefly about ultra-fast lasers – what’s your favourite example of what they can do?
DS: Oh, OK, well right now I’ve taken over doing the undergraduate labs and I’m trying to think of, you know, what was the most exciting thing for me to see, OK? So you’re probably thinking bigger things. I just think white light generation is just one of these remarkable things to see, and actually, you know, one colour of light goes in to just water or any clear anything and out comes all the colours of the rainbow when the pulses are short and intense enough. And it’s just remarkable to sit there and go “What? Where do all those colours come from?” It’s not that we don’t understand that in science, but it’s one of those things that’s just really cool to see.
AS: Well, it was good enough for Newton if you see what I mean
DS: Yeah, well, yeah, but it’s not like, yeah, it’s different than Newton seeing all the colours that are in white light. We actually just start with a very narrow bandwidth and create all of those colours through the non-linear interaction with the medium.
AS: Gosh, that is magical, yes.
DS: It is magical and, you know, it took many years for scientists to even figure out what was going on, which is also always a fun, you know, thing for scientists to do. That’s what we like to do, is puzzle as to why something is working. But it’s, you know, it’s useful. White light generation is used also everywhere, so …
AS: As you say, what a wonderful demonstration of what this prize is all about – a laser, light and matter interaction.
DS: That’s right.
AS: Yeah. Well, goodness, we’ll learn a lot more about this when you come to Stockholm in December. We very much look forward to welcoming you.
DS: Well, thank you very much.
AS: It’s a joy to speak with you and I very much look forward to meeting you in December.
DS: Thank you, and I certainly look forward to getting there. [Laughs]
AS: Well good luck with what will undoubtedly be a very busy day.
DS: Yes, thank you very much.
AS: Bye bye.
DS: Bye bye.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.