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Moving Atoms With Light: Physics Nobel 2018

Every year, science enthusiasts all over the world await the moment the Physics Nobel prize will be awarded. Theoretical physicists debate with engineers; will it be abstract or applied? Conceptual, or in fact, a proof of concept? These are questions researchers hoping to obtain this honour ask themselves daily; the Nobel Prize is the highest recognition attainable in the world of science, and this year it has been awarded to three groundbreaking individuals: Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland for their contributions to the field of laser physics.

What is laser physics exactly? Laser is actually an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”; which more simply put, is a light source that can both be focused on a very tight spot, stay as a narrow beam while doing so, and emit very narrow sections of the electromagnetic spectrum, which allows for this light to be of a single colour. This might sound trivial, but it has thousands of applications that are of incredible usefulness to us, including the revolutionary technology developed by Arthur Ashkin: optical tweezers. Ashkin invented lasers so finely tuned that they could, using the radiation pressure of light, push physical objects on an atomic scale and hold them in place without harming them. This allowed him to capture living bacteria without damaging the organisms; and since his initial discovery in 1987, revolutionise the field of studying the machinery of life.

Ashkin’s discovery could not have been possible without Mourou and Strickland’s contributions; in 1985, they developed chirped pulse amplification, CPA: ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses, think of it as compressed light lasers, which are the basis for all Lasik eye correction surgeries; and have innumerable other applications that are yet to be discovered.

These three researchers have created technology that was previously a dream of science fiction, pioneering in a field that has the potential to change the way we live completely. Congratulations to them!

Beatriz J, Year 12

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