Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to Professor Donna Strickland

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Donna StricklandDonna Strickland, Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Waterloo, was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in physics "for groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics" for the "method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses".

Donna Strickland's tremendous contributions to laser physics exemplifies research excellence at Waterloo. Her groundbreaking work established the foundation for today's laser-based technologies. From laser eye surgery that has corrected eyesight for millions of people to laser-based cameras capturing chemical and physical reactions in laboratories around the world, Strickland's chirped pulse amplification technique has had tremendous societal impact.

The following excerpt from University Relations' Rose Simone provides a lay description of Strickland's work:

Today, laser technology is so ubiquitous, we tend to take for granted. But in 1985, when Donna Strickland was working on her PhD, that wasn't the case. How to boost the intensity of the beams in order to do more with lasers without damaging whatever the beams hit was a significant challenge. Laser systems had to be large and expensive, and the intensity of the laser pulses had to be kept below a certain threshold to prevent them from being dangerous.

Strickland, in her first published experimental work, along with her thesis advisor Gérard Mourou at the University of Rochester, developed an ingenious solution. They realized that by stretching, amplifying, and then compressing the beams, they could boost the intensity of the light dramatically. It allowed more light to be packed into a shorter time, increasing the intensity of the pulse, while allowing laser beams to cut into matter with extreme precision. The breakthrough was called chirped pulse amplification, and the technique greatly expanded the uses for lasers. Laser tools based on chirped pulse amplification are now employed in scientific, industrial, medical, energy, military, and security applications.

Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland paved the way toward the shortest and most intense laser pulses created by humankind. The technique they developed opened up new areas of research and led to broad industrial and medical applications.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Strickland, who joined the University of Waterloo in 1997, and Mourou, who is now at the École Polytechnique in his native France, shared one half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work creating "tools made of light". The other half of the prize went to Arthur Ashkin, who is being honoured for his invention of optical tweezers that grab particles, atoms, viruses, and other living cells with "laser beam fingers".

Strickland is only the third woman in history to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, and the first in more than fifty years. The first was was Marie Curie who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (and then a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911). The second was Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

Strickland's achievement was built upon the fundamental work of Goeppert Mayer who developed the theory of possible two-atom absorption by atoms. Work that was done by Goeppert Mayer in kicking off the field of multi-photon ionization in the 1930s was cited in Strickland's doctoral thesis. Strickland will receive the prize at the ceremony in Stockholm in December. 

(from the Report of the Vice-President, University Research to Senate, October 2018)

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