Arthur Ashkin of Rumson wins the Nobel Prize
Arthur Ashkin, a Rumson resident awarded the Nobel Prize for physics on Tuesday, discusses his career.
Michael L. Diamond, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

STOCKHOLM — Three scientists from the United States, Canada and France won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for work with lasers described as revolutionary and bringing science fiction into reality.

One of them, Arthur Ashkin, 96, of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, entered the Nobel record books by becoming the oldest laureate by six years. Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada is the first woman to have won a Nobel in three years and is only the third to have won for physics.

Frenchman Gerard Mourou of the Ecole Polytechnique and University of Michigan shares half the prize’s 9-million-kronor, $1.01 million, with Strickland; Ashkin gets the other half.

Ashkin said Tuesday that he had thought his research was worthy of one of the world's most prestigious prizes but figured his time had passed. He had retired in 1990.

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"I had given up," Ashkin said, sitting on a couch in his Rumson, New Jersey, living room. "I had stopped worrying about it."

Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences, which chose the winners, said Ashkin’s development of “optical tweezers” that can grab tiny particles such as viruses without damaging them realized “an old dream of science fiction — using the radiation pressure of light to move physical objects.”

Ashkin had made the discovery in 1987 at age 65. Early on in his career at Bell Labs, he didn't get a raise and was worried he would be fired after his research didn't pan out.

"I was always afraid I wasn’t smart enough," he said. "There were all these geniuses getting Nobel Prizes."

The tweezers are “extremely important for measuring small forces on individual molecules, small objects, and this has been very interesting in biology, to understand how things like muscle tissue work, what are the molecule motors behind the muscle tissue,” said David Haviland of the academy’s Nobel committee.

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Ashkin's prize marked the ninth Nobel for work at New Jersey's Bell Labs, when it was home to research and development that supported AT&T during its monopoly. 

Strickland and Mourou helped develop short and intense laser pulses that have broad industrial and medical applications, including laser eye surgery. The academy said their 1985 article on the technique was “revolutionary.”

Strickland’s award is the first to have gone to a woman in physics since 1963, when it was won by Maria Goeppert-Mayer; the only other one was Marie Curie in 1903.

“Obviously 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, maybe,” Strickland said in a phone call with the academy after the prize announcement.

Michael Moloney, chief executive of the American Institute of Physics, praised all the laureates.

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“It is also a personal delight to see Dr. Strickland break the 55-year hiatus since a woman has been awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, making this year’s award all the more historic,” he said.

He credited the work of all three with “expanding what is possible at the extremes of time, space and forms of matter.”

On Monday, American James Allison and Japan’s Tasuku Honjo won the Nobel medicine prize for groundbreaking work in fighting cancer with the body’s own immune system.

The Nobel chemistry prize comes Wednesday, followed by the peace prize Friday. The economics prize, which is not technically a Nobel, will be announced Oct. 8.

Although Ashkin is officially retired, for the past decade he has been working on technology that can lower the cost of solar energy — a project he said has taken on more urgency, not only because of his age, but also because of climate change.

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His quest was interrupted a couple of years ago, when he had a procedure to fix his aorta. But he seems to have recovered. These days he walks down the steps each day to the unfinished basement that has become his laboratory, and he toils away.

He's been eager to get his research published.  

"Now that I’m a Nobel Prize winner, they might say, 'Oh he’s a smart guy, we’d better accept his paper,' " Ashkin said. "Before, it was iffy.”

Contributing: Michael L. Diamond, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

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Members of the Nobel Committee for Physics, from left, Olga Botner, Goran K Hansson and Mats Larsson, sit in front of a screen displaying portraits of Arthur Ashkin of the United States, Gerard Mourou of France and Donna Strickland of Canada during the announcement of the winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on October 2, 2018 in Stockholm.
Outhanna Franzen, AFP/Getty Images

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