Donna Strickland Becomes First Woman In More Than 50 Years To Win Physics Nobel Prize

Oct 2, 2018
Originally published on October 2, 2018 11:56 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Let's talk now with the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics in more than 50 years. Donna Strickland learned the good news at 5 a.m. this morning when she got the phone call from Sweden. She shares this year's prize with two other scientists, Arthur Ashkin and Gerard Mourou. All were honored for breakthroughs in laser physics.

Donna Strickland joins us now by Skype from the University of Waterloo in Canada. Congratulations.

DONNA STRICKLAND: Thank you very much.

CHANG: (Laughter) So you've been up for a while. I assume you had some time to let this all sink in. How are you feeling right now about this moment?

STRICKLAND: Well, I don't know if I had that much time to think about...

CHANG: (Laughter).

STRICKLAND: ...Emails and press conferences and telephone interviews. I think tomorrow it'll sink in.

CHANG: Now, I understand you won your award for what's called chirped pulse amplification. I have never heard that phrase in my entire life, but I read that it is a technique used in laser eye surgery, which I badly need, so I'm very grateful to you. When that paper came out, this was your first scientific paper ever, right?

STRICKLAND: That's right.

CHANG: So in the simplest way you can manage, can you explain to all of us, what is chirped pulse amplification?

STRICKLAND: Actually, it was done in radar. We didn't realize that, you know, during World War II, so it was quite a few years before we did it again in optics. But it is the idea that if you really want a huge force on something like an electron, electric field, you need the peak power, and peak power is energy per unit time.

And at the time of CPA invention, you could have either big energy lasers, or you could have short pulse lasers. But if you put a short pulse through, this enormous electric field actually destroyed the amplifier, so you couldn't have both. And so the idea of chirped pulse amplification is if you chirp the pulse - and the word chirp comes from a bird's chirp because they change their frequency in time...

CHANG: OK.

STRICKLAND: ...As they chirp up or down - it really means that the different colors of the light travel faster or slower, especially done with something like a fiber, so that the reddest of the colors came first and the bluest came later. And so we - the original laser used 1 1/2 kilometers of fiber, and that stretched all these colors to make the pulse long.

CHANG: Just very quickly, I mean, you are the first female Nobel Laureate in physics in 55 years, only the third ever. What does that part of this day feel like?

STRICKLAND: Well, I mean, I was surprised when whoever first said that to me said that to me this morning. It hadn't occurred to me. I hadn't looked at all the Nobel Prizes and thought, my goodness, there's no women. So it was a little bit surprising to me. But, I mean, I do live in a world of mostly men, so seeing mostly men doesn't really ever surprise me either, so...

CHANG: (Laughter).

STRICKLAND: So yes (laughter), there you go. I feel unbelievably honored to be, you know, with Marie Curie and Goeppert Mayer. It's like, how can I be in the same breath as those three?

CHANG: Maria Goeppert Mayer for nuclear physics in 1963, Marie Curie in 1903 for her studies of radiation.

STRICKLAND: Exactly, you know, so it's pretty humbling to be in that community.

CHANG: Well, congratulations to you. Donna Strickland is a Canadian physicist, now winner of the Nobel Prize in physics along with two others, Arthur Ashkin of the U.S. and Gerard Mourou of France. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.