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Professor Donna Strickland is one of the most Nobel Prize awardees in the field of science. She is the only woman who won the prize after 50 years of men dominating the field! What makes her work remarkable is that she’s working in a field that is primarily dominated by men these days and that is laser physics.

She was responsible for the creation of the Chirped Pulse Amplification method that helps lasers stretch out their pulses without damaging the materials that help this amplification process happen! The prize was won along with Prof. Gerard Mourou and Prof. Arthur Ashkin. with the majority of the prize share being shared by Prof. Ashkin for his contribution to the project.

Her journey in the field of lasers began during her Ph.D. at the University of Rochester where they were working on increasing the intensity of the laser pulses at the time. She spent so much time working on them that she used to call herself the ‘laser jock‘ given the job of bringing that idea to life! Her supervisor at the time, Prof. Gerard Mourou had the idea that is the space the laser out and augment them before bringing them back together would increase their intensity over time. He was right because with the teamwork it eventually worked out!

Prof. Strickland in 1985 working on lasers a the University of Rochester.                            Picture credit: Official Nobel Prize Page
Prof. Strickland in 1985 working on lasers a the University of Rochester. Picture credit: Official Nobel Prize Page

So, what was the motivation behind the project? This was a common problem at the time because, in order to increase the intensity of a laser beam, it would require amplification of the source and any laser beam that was higher than the magnitude of gigawatts per sq. centimeter would damage the gain medium of the setup. The only way out would be to stretch out the ultrafast laser beam in time and compress it which would increase its intensity due to the constant compression.

This is exactly what was done in the project and eventually, they were able to create laser pulses that hold themselves over a long period of time and of extremely high intensities! This technique has enabled them to create a technique known as ‘Optical Tweezers’ that literally allows you to trap particles as small as an atom to a virus particle to even single bacterial cells! They managed to do so using their optical traps and now, it is being used in basic research to study protein molecules and single-cell molecular behavior.

Schematic representation of Chirped Pulse Amplification
Schematic representation of Chirped Pulse Amplification

Applications:

  1. Corrective eyes surgeries where they use the laser beam to correct the damaged part of the eye
  2. Transmutation of the radioactive materials to reduce their half-lives from thousands of years to barely a few minutes
  3. Optical tweezers to capture microscopic-sized particles
  4. Possibilities to increase solar cell capacities, better catalysts, improved, and designer pharmaceuticals.

References:

Donna Strickland (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/donna-strickland

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2018. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/10/popular-physicsprize2018.pdf

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