Physics Nobel goes to scientists who invented optical tweezers and laser pulses

Canadian Nobel physics laureate hails womens progress

At 96, Prof Ashkin is the oldest person ever to win a Nobel and will share the prize of about nine million Swedish krona (€865,000) with Prof Strickland and Dr Mourou.

Optical tweezers trap a tiny object by using focused laser beams to exert very small forces on it.

Arthur Ashkin, 96 - the oldest ever Nobel prize victor - of Bell Laboratories in the USA won half of the prize for inventing "optical tweezers" while Frenchman Gerard Mourou, who also has United States citizenship, and Canada's Donna Strickland shared the other half for work on high-intensity lasers.

She also said she wanted to attract young people to the field by fighting the perception that science was nerdy - hence her description of herself as a "laser jock" rather than a "laser geek".

These devices "are opening unexplored areas of research and a multitude of industrial and medical applications", it said.

Ashkin's optical tweezers are the real life version of Star Trek's tractor beams-although they're capable of grasping and manipulating only very small objects, like a single cell, not a whole shuttle craft.

The head of the American Institute of Physics said the work of Mr Mourou and Ms Strickland enabled new studies of matter by allowing scientists to produce more powerful bursts of laser light.

Their technique is now used in corrective eye surgery.

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"Obviously we need to celebrate women physicists", Strickland said shortly after learning of the prize. Marie Curie, who researched radioactive substances and remains the only woman to win two Nobel prizes, won the prize for physics in 1903. One of the most notable cases is of British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars but was passed over for the award, which was given to her supervisor Antony Hewish in 1974.

Scientist Arthur Ashkin thought he might have a chance to win a Nobel Prize a few decades ago.

"Arthur Ashkin's work", she said, "has served as the foundation and inspiration for my work on precision mechanical biophysics".

Out of 923 total Nobel Prize laureates, only 48 of those have been women, and just three in the physics category.

The last woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics, however, was Maria Goeppert Mayer, who shared half of the prize in 1963 with Hans Jensen, for their 1949 work that described how the protons and neutrons in an atom's nucleus are arranged in "shells" of different energy levels, similar to how the electrons that "orbit" the nucleus are arranged.

This technique is used in millions of laser eye surgeries every year, according to the academy statement.

The awards, endowed by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, are each worth 9 million kronor ($1m) this year.

2017 - Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish earned the award for the detection of gravitational waves.

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