U-M professor awarded Nobel Prize in physics

Tuesday, October 2, 2018 - 3:25pm

Gérard Mourou, an A. D. Moore distinguished University professor emeritus in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, received a Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for pioneering the field of high-speed and high-intensity lasers.

Gérard Mourou, an A. D. Moore distinguished University professor emeritus in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, received a Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for pioneering the field of high-speed and high-intensity lasers. Buy this photo
Photo Courtesy of Daryl Marshke/Michigan Photography

Gérard Mourou, an A. D. Moore distinguished University professor emeritus in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, received a Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for pioneering the field of high-speed and high-intensity lasers. The University of Michigan ranks among the top 50 universities in the world with the most Nobel Prize winners.

Mourou served as a founding director at the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science, a research facility within the College of Engineering that studies the application of ultrashort laser pulses in a variety of disciplines.  Mourou is an established expert in his field, and has received the Wood Prize from the Optical Society of America in 1995 as well as the Edgerton Prize from the International Society for Optics and Phonics in 1997, among other accomplishments, such as the 2005 Willis E. Lamb Award for Laser Science and Quantum Optics and Charles Hard Townes Award also by the Optical Society of America in 2009.

Mourou shares half of the more than $1 million award with Donna Strickland, Canadian physicist and 2013 director of the Optical Society of America, while the other half was awarded to Arthur Ashkin, an affiliate of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Mourou and Strickland published an article in 1985 on their development of the chirped pulse amplification, a process that creates short and intense laser pulses through stretching and quickly compressing light matter. These pulses are now widely applied for the industrial and medical uses, including laser eye surgery.

Ashkin received the award for his work developing optical tweezers that utilize laser light to maneuver tiny particles, such as viruses. At age 96, he is the oldest Nobel laureate.

In a video statement released by Ecole Polytechnique, a top French college, Mourou explained the effects of their achievement.

“It’s something that sort of never happens at this level. I am very, very happy to share this distinction with my former student Donna Strickland and also to share it with Art Ashkin, for whom I have a lot of respect … We invented a technique that made the laser extremely powerful. With the technology we have developed, laser power has been increased about a million times, maybe even a billion.”

Strickland is the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics since Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963, who was awarded for her work in nuclear physics. The only other woman to receive this award was Marie Curie in 1903.  In a interview with the academy after the award announcement, Strickland highlighted the importance of recognizing female physicists and their achievements.

“Obviously we need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there,” Strickland said. “Hopefully in time it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate, maybe.”

Michael Moloney, CEO of the American Institute of Physics, congratulated all of the laureates and expressed support of Strickland’s work and achievements.

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