First reactions. Telephone interview, October 2023
“My daughter called me asking, ‘Is that true, I see it on Google?’”
“My daughter called me asking, ‘Is that true, I see it on Google?’” That was how Pierre Agostini found out he had been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics. In this conversation with Adam Smith, kindly facilitated by Dawn Larzelere of The Ohio State University (whose voice is heard at the start and end), Agostini talks of his surprise at receiving the prize now, his initial thoughts on hearing the news and recalls his pleasure at being the first to produce a train of attosecond light pulses back in 2001.
Dawn Larzelere: Adam, are you there?
Adam Smith: I am.
DL: Pierre, are you there?
Pierre Agostini: I am!
DL: Awesome, I connected you two, this is great. All right.
AS: How lovely, many congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
PA: Thank you, thank you so much.
AS: And you are in France, so, I think that they tried, but they could not reach you to tell you the news. How did you hear the news that you had been awarded the prize?
PA: Well, simple, my daughter called me asking “Is that true, I see it on google?” So yes, I didn’t know what to expect really. I thought it was some kind of mistake but it’s not apparently.
AS: It seems not, not at all.
PA: I’m glad to hear that.
AS: Most official. But what did you do when you found out that this was the case?
PA: I thought of going away, far from any telephone. [Laughs]
PA: But I guess I cannot do that completely one way or another.
AS: It’s nice for us that you don’t, but I understand the thought, because you are much in demand now. Apart from wanting to hide, what does it make you think?
PA: It makes me think that the reasons of the Nobel Committee are obscure, and why they chose to award this kind of research now is sort of a mystery. But, why not, after all. It’s a long time for me. It’s about twenty years since we did that experiment that started the attosecond stuff, but ok, better late than never.
AS: In 2001 when you produced that first train of attosecond light pulses, did you know that this was something that could perhaps one day receive a Nobel Prize?
PA: Well, ok, there was sort of a competition between the group at Saclay and our coworker Harm-Geert Muller from Amsterdam. There was a competition between us and the other two. Those two guys, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier, so we were all in a conference, a sort of European conference and we were really happy to be the first one to announce the thing.
AS: And now the race continues, now the race is to get shorter and shorter pulses.
PA: Yes, at that time we were, I think, the first measurement was something like 400 attoseconds and now they are at 50.
AS: For those who don’t live in the world of attosecond physics, can you help people grasp just how short an attosecond is?
PA: Yes, I was once in a conference, and the guy was talking about femtoseconds, and he was comparing a nickel to the deficit of the United States. An attosecond is a one thousandth of a femtosecond, it’s very short.
AS: I like the idea of a thousandth of a nickel in comparison to the deficit of the United States, that works! It helps, you know it’s hard to get your head around it. It’s a strange question to ask, but do you think you are going to enjoy being a Nobel laureate?
PA: Not sure about that. I am a very, by the way, I am very happy for Ferenc and Anne, and please congratulate them if you talk to them on the phone.
AS: Indeed, I certainly shall. How will you celebrate the rest of today, or how will you enjoy the rest of today?
PA: That’s a good question. I will try to call my grand daughter and grand children who are in Paris at the moment and so we’ll try to get together, and sort of celebrate in the family.
AS: That sounds lovely. I wish a lovely rest of day and I hope that somehow you are able to escape at least some of the calls that come your way.
PA: Thank you, thank you. I will try.
DL: Thank you both of you, I really appreciate the time.
AS: I’ll let you two get on, thank you very much indeed Dawn for organising this. Thank you, thank you Pierre, bye bye.
DL: Of course, thank you Adam.
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