Donna Strickland’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 2018.
Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my honour to represent the Nobel Prize in Physics 2018 and speak on behalf of Arthur Ashkin and Gérard Mourou, my esteemed colleagues with whom I share the prize. Arthur Ashkin won half of it this year and so he should be the one giving this speech. Unfortunately, he could not join us for this incredible celebration. Gérard and I want to add our congratulations to Arthur, for his remarkable invention of laser tweezers that can trap living cells and wind up molecular motors. We wish Arthur could be here.
As has been pointed out, I join Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer as the only women to win this prize. I am humbled to be in their company. Marie Curie is in a class all her own as the first female winner and still the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different science categories. An astounding scientist.
For her PhD, Maria Goeppert Mayer, a theoretical physicist, came up with the idea of multi-photon physics. That means an atom absorbs two or more photons simultaneously. She made the prediction without any experimental evidence and in fact it would be another 30 years before anyone observed the effect. I cited her theory in my PhD thesis more than 50 years later.
And as for me – when I was in grad school working on the project for which Gérard and I are being honoured, Cyndi Lauper had a big hit: Girls Just Want to Have Fun. But they wanted to wait until the working day is done. As for me, I want to have fun while I’m working. Now not everyone thinks physics is fun, but I do. I think experimental physics is especially fun, because not only do you get to solve puzzles about the universe or on Earth, there are really cool toys in the lab. In my case, I get to play with high intensity lasers, that can do magical things like take one color of laser light and turn it into a rainbow of colors. Just one of the amazing things we get to see in our laser labs.
Gérard Mourou, who was my PhD supervisor, dreamed up the idea of increasing laser intensity by orders of magnitude. He did it while he was on a ski trip with his family. He probably shouldn’t have been thinking about lasers. He just couldn’t help himself. It was my job to take Gérard’s beautiful idea and make it a reality. I built a pulse stretcher, then a laser amplifier and then finally a pulse compressor. To do so, I had to learn to cleave optical fiber, machine a lot of parts, do a lot of plumbing. Are you feeling the fun? I had to measure the pulse durations and the frequency spectrum. Not all of the measurements showed what we expected. We had to figure out the problems and then a way around them. That was the fun part.
That all took about a year. Then it was finally time to measure the duration of the compressed, amplified pulses and I had no way to measure it. Steve Williamson, my colleague, had the way and he wheeled his streak camera into my lab one night, and together we measured the compressed pulse width of the amplified pulses. I will never forget that night. It is truly an amazing feeling when you know that you have built something that no one else ever has – and it actually works.
There really is no excitement quite like it … except for maybe getting woken up at 5 in the morning because the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Foundation also think it was an exciting moment for the field of laser physics.
So on behalf of Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and me, thank you to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Foundation for honouring us and laser physics with this Nobel Prize.
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.