Early one morning in October 2018, Donna Strickland sat in bed in a state of shock in the Waterloo, Ontario, home she shares with her husband.
It was exactly 5 a.m. and she had just received “an important call from Sweden”, which was how the man on the other end of the line had described it. Then he placed Strickland on hold for several minutes.
She sat there in bed, one hand holding the phone to her ear and the other clinging to the arm of her husband.
Each year, the Nobel committee for physics notifies its recipient or recipients on the same date at the same time. Strickland knew that and allowed herself a guess.
“I think this is the Nobel Prize,” she said to her husband. “I can’t believe it.”
Strickland was right. More than three decades earlier, in 1985, she and her PhD supervisor at the time, Gérard Mourou, had created a high-intensity, ultrashort optical pulse, a new type of laser that concentrates more energy into a smaller space. Now that work was being recognized with science’s highest honour.
“It was quite a nice wake-up call,” Strickland said in a telephone interview ahead of a November 25 engagement at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
She had become one of 53 female Nobel recipients (versus 866 males) and one of just three women who have received the award for physics. But, Strickland adds, notification that she was a Nobel laureate is not the career moment she cherishes the most.
Strickland told the Straight that in the 1990s, when it emerged that her discovery could be used in laser eye surgery to return the gift of sight, that was also wonderful to learn. But, again, Strickland said, that was not the high point of her academic life.
“When I felt proudest was when I got the laser itself to work. That’s the moment I remember the most,” Strickland said. “It was pure science.”
What exactly is a high-intensity, ultrashort optical pulse? Canada’s 26th recipient of the Nobel Prize dumbs it down like this: “My analogy is always with a nail and a piece of wood. You can push on a nail and it doesn’t go in. But you pick up a hammer and you tap on the nail quickly and it will go in.”
Using a new technique she developed called chirped-pulse amplification, Strickland and Mourou invented the ultrashort optical pulse laser. They figured out how to pack more light—and therefore more energy—into a smaller space. That allowed for the creation of lasers significantly more powerful than existing devices and, crucially, lasers that emit less heat.
It’s an ideal example of why science should be funded for science’s sake, Strickland said.
In 1985, she didn’t know that the method she developed to concentrate light would be used in laser eye surgeries or in the manufacture of tiny components crucial to the assembly of mobile phones. But other scientists built on her research and that’s where it led.
“It is only from a body of knowledge that we can come up with new applications,” Strickland explained. “It was Einstein who first came up with the equation for the laser, in 1917. We didn’t even have a laser until 1960. And then it really only exploded 25 years later. That’s when lasers were starting to be used everywhere.”
Magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) is another example, Strickland said. The technology it relies on, nuclear magnetic resonance, was first described in 1938. Forty years later, MRI machines began appearing in hospitals around the world.
Science should be funded as a matter of simple exploration.
“But there is also a tremendous economic benefit,” Strickland added. “I think Canada should be spending a bigger portion of our GDP on science and research. The economy of the future is going to be explored using science. I think we want to get on that wave.”
What’s Canada’s Nobel Laureate working on today?
Strickland said she’s working on crunching lasers into even smaller spaces.
“I still just like playing with any laser I can put my hands on, especially smaller lasers,” she said with obvious joy.