Life Science Canadian is just third woman to win Nobel physics prize

Canadian is just third woman to win Nobel physics prize

Donna Strickland in her lab following news of her shared Nobel Prize in Physics. Photo: Getty
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A Canadian woman has become just the third woman ever to win the Nobel prize for physics – and the first in 55 years.

Donna Strickland, of Canada’s University of Waterloo, was one of an international trio who took out the prize for their laser technology breakthroughs that have turned light beams into precision tools for everything from eye surgery to micro-machining.

The other members of the group are Arthur Ashkin of Bell Laboratories in the US – who won half of the prize for inventing “optical tweezers” – and Frenchman Gerard Mourou – who shared the other half with Dr Strickland for their work on high-intensity lasers.

The only other women to have been awarded the physics prize are Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

“Is that all, really?” Dr Strickland asked the audience assembled in the ornate, wood-panelled hall at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Tuesday morning (Swedish time), surprised more women had not won the award.

“Well, OK. I thought there might have been more but I couldn’t think.”

Later, she said women physicists deserved more celebration.

“We are out there and hopefully, in time, it will start to move forward at a faster rate,” she said.

donna strickland physics nobel
Donna Strickland arrives at her lab after news emerges that she has won the Nobel prize for physics. Photo: Getty

Dr Strickland is the first female Nobel laureate in any field in three years.

She is an associate professor of physics at the Ontario university but hardly has a high profile.

Online publication Quartz reports that, as recently as May 2018, Wikipedia editors weren’t convinced that Dr Strickland was famous enough to merit an article on the site.

Her career in physics started with a spur-of-the-moment decision four decades ago, when a university program on lasers caught the high school student’s eye, according to Canada’s The Globe and Mail.

That produced a gut-level feeling that the versatile beams were not only useful, but supremely cool: “I just wanted to do something fun,” she said.

The fact she remains an associate professor, and is not a full professor – even though she leads a research group that specialises in ultrafast lasers – raised eyebrows as soon as Dr Strickland was named a Nobel laureate.

But she told The Globe and Mail the explanation was simply about priorities.

Getting the higher title would mean time spent marshalling support and documentation for an academic review committee.

“To me, it just wasn’t worth the bother,” she said.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said last year it would seek to more actively encourage nominations of women researchers to begin addressing the imbalance.

The inventions by the three scientists date back to the mid-1980s. Over the years they have revolutionised laser physics.

“Advanced precision instruments are opening up unexplored areas of research and a multitude of industrial and medical applications,” the academy said on awarding the nine million Swedish crown ($A1.4 million) prize.

Dr Ashkin’s work was based on the realisation the pressure of a beam of light could push microscopic objects and trap them in position.

A breakthrough came in 1987 when he used the new optical tweezers to grab living bacteria without harming them.

At 96, Dr Ashkin is the oldest Nobel prize winner.

– with AAP

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