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AAAS Fellow Arthur Ashkin Shares Nobel Prize in Physics for Optical Tweezers

Illustration of three scientists' headshots
Arthur Ashkin, left, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland named 2018 Nobel Prize laureates for physics. | Niklas Elmehed/© Nobel Media AB 2018

Scientist Arthur Ashkin was awarded half of the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for inventing optical tweezers able to grip live bacteria and other living particles without inflicting any damage on them, a groundbreaking advancement in laser physics.

Ashkin, an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shared half of the $1.01 million award with Gérard Mourou of France and Donna Strickland of Canada “for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses,” announced the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selected the three Laureates.

Strickland is the first female researcher to be presented a Nobel Prize in Physics in 55 years. The award Strickland and Mourou shared for a technique called “chirped pulse amplification,” is now used for corrective eye surgery as well as other medical and industrial applications.

In presenting the award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Ashkin’s optical tweezers “created entirely new opportunities for observing and controlling the machinery of life,” adding that the tweezers are able to take hold of “particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers.”

Inspired by the ability of Star Trek-era light beams to retrieve asteroids in space without laying a finger on them and intrigued by the invention of the laser in 1960, Ashkin began to experiment with whether light beams could push particles and atoms around without disturbing them.

Ashkin spent years of laboratory work searching for answers and, in the process, encountered his share of setbacks. In 1986, he made a major discovery that optical tweezers could be used to examine biological systems, a finding that led to the study of “the mechanical properties of molecular motors, large molecules that perform vital work inside cells,” noted the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

“This new tool allowed Ashkin to realize an old dream of science fiction – using radiation pressure of light to move physical objects,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences added. “He succeeded in getting laser light to push small particles toward the center of the beam and to hold them there.”

Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, pointed to the significance of the Nobel committee’s recognition of the ability of Ashkin’s optical tweezers to study molecular motors that fulfill essential tasks inside cells.

“The ability to measure and manipulate these centrally important motor proteins at the level of single molecules, made possible by optical tweezer technology, has transformed our understanding of a central aspect of cell biology,” said Berg.

Ashkin, 96, spent four decades at Bell Laboratories before he retired in 1992 and is the oldest Nobel Laureate ever named, according to Bell Laboratories. He was elected a AAAS Fellow in 1998 and is a AAAS member.

“The innumerable areas of application have not yet been completely explored,” said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences of the recognized advances in laser physics. “However, even now these celebrated inventions allow us to rummage around in the microworld in the best spirit of Alfred Nobel – for the greatest benefit to mankind.”

[Associated image: Niklas Elmehed/© Nobel Media AB 2018]

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Anne Q. Hoy