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For the First Time in 55 Years, a Woman Wins the Nobel Prize in Physics

Dr. Donna Strickland, a self-described "laser jock," is the third woman to ever win a Nobel Prize in physics, following in the footsteps of Marie Curie.
October 2, 2018, 2:48pm
Photo courtesy of the University of Waterloo

For only the third time in its history, the Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to a female recipient: Dr. Donna Strickland.

Strickland will share the prize alongside American physicist Dr. Arthur Ashkin, and French scientist Dr. Gérard Mourou. She is the first woman to win the prize in 55 years, and joins the illustratious ranks of Marie Curie, who won in 1903, and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, awarded the prize in 1963.

The prize was awarded for Strickland, Ashkin, and Mourou’s work in the field of laser physics. Strickland and her former PhD advisor Mourou developed a technique called chirped pulse amplification, which is used to produce ultra short, high intensity pulses that are used by doctors around the world today to perform laser eye surgery. These ultra-sharp laser beams are also used to cut and drill extremely precise holes in materials. In an interview with a newspaper, Strickland once described herself as a "laser jock."

Strickland, who is an associate professor at University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada described the award in comments reported by the Guardian newspaper as “crazy”. In a telephone interview with the Royal Swedish Academy, she expressed shock that only two women had won the prize before her. “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there, and hopefully in time it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate. I’m honoured to be one of those women,” she said.

Her triumph is all the sweeter as it comes just days after a prestigious nuclear research center in Geneva was forced to suspend a senior research after he claimed that physics was “invented and built by men.” Professor Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University was giving a presentation at Cern when he made the comments, which were widely condemned. “On Monday, 1 October, CERN suspended the scientist from any activity at CERN with immediate effect, pending investigation into last week’s event,” the research center said in a written statement. “CERN is a culturally diverse organisation bringing together people of many different nationalities. It is a place where everyone is welcome, and all have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation.”

Strickland will take home a quarter of the $1 million prize, as will Mourou. Ashkin, who at 96 is the oldest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize, was awarded half of the total prize money for his work on optical laser tweezers.

"The countless applications made possible by their work, like laser eye surgery, high-power pettawat lasers, and the ability to trap and study individual viruses and bacteria, only promise to increase going forward," said Michael Moloney of the American Institute of Physics in a written statement. "It is also a personal delight to see Dr Strickland break the 55-year hiatus since a woman has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, making this year's award all the more historic."

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Today’s historic award will give women in physics some long-overdue visibility. But more work is needed until the playing field is truly equal. During her press conference earlier today, Strickland was informed that she was only the third woman ev to win the award. “Is that all, really?” she responded. “I thought there might have been more.”