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Nobel Prize for physics: 'Clear solutions are the best discoveries'

What does Leiden physicist Wolfgang Löffler think about the award of the Nobel Prize for physics to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland?

The three winners, American Ashkin, Frenchman Mourou and Canadian Strickland were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in laser physics. Ashkin developed a kind of lazer tweezers that makes it easier to examine very minute objects like viruses and atoms. Mourou and Strickland pioneered the - safe - use of lasers in medicine. 

The choice to honour scientists who are not so much concerned with primary physics as with the development of instruments is striking. And this time there is once again a woman: 55 years ago, in 1963, Maria Goeppert-Mayer and two others received the prize for research into energy conditions in atomic nuclei.

Many and diverse applications

What exactly is the discovery for which Ashkin, Mourou and Strickland were awarded the Nobel Prize?
'Both discoveries are about lasers, but they are quite different: Ashkin's discovery makes it possible to hold and move small objects around a thousandth of a millimetre in size using tweezers made from laser light. This has already led to many excellent applications. It is possible to hold an entire cell, and the instrument can even be used for living cells. There are also applications in fundamental physics, for example in the control of small spheres and membranes in their "real" quantum basic state. With a laser, in biophysics you can also measure the forces of DNA and proteins.'

'Mourou and Strickland have developed a way to make the brightest light pulses ever. Lasers cannot be intensified infinitely because the materials then explode. The two physicists - in retrospect very logically - solved this issue by first making the pulse longer and thus weaker and then strengthening it and shortening it again. These kinds of clear solutions are the best discoveries, and this bright light now has applications in everyday material processing and in the laser acceleration of particles. And the first nuclear fusion that actually produced energy, which succeeded in 2013, used lasers!'

Self-made laser tweezers

Why was this such an important discovery?
'The technique not only had many applications in all kinds of research fields, it also made completely new fields of research possible. We can expect many very useful discoveries to come out of this in the future!' 

Did this discovery influence your own research, and if so, how?
'It certainly did. I've often used laser technology that is partly based on the Mourou-Strickland method. Then I'm working in optomechanics, where we test micro objects with light, which is very exciting. I also had a lot of fun seeing my first self-made optical tweezers working!'

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