'I tell my wife that's the only thing I'm really good at'

96-year-old Jewish Nobel Prize winner says he’s driven by science not accolades

Arthur Ashkin revolutionized eye surgery with his invention of ‘optical tweezers’ that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with laser beam fingers

Arthur Ashkin (YouTube)
Arthur Ashkin (YouTube)

Arthur Ashkin, the Jewish American who on Tuesday became the oldest Nobel Prize laureate in history, said that even at 96 years old, science is still what motivates him each day.

“I’m very old and had given up worrying about things like Nobel Prizes,” Ashkin told The Associated Press in an interview.

The nonagenarian, who was honored for his invention of “optical tweezers” that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers, is currently working solar energy research at his New Jersey home. These days, though, scientific research is “a hobby more or less,” he told the official website of the Nobel Prize.

“I tell my wife that’s the only thing I’m really good at,” he said.

Ashkin, who will share half of the 9 million kronor ($1.01 million) prize with physicists Gerard Mourou of France and Donna Strickland of Canada, said he did not expect it but was was nonetheless pleasantly surprised when he got the 5 a.m. call from Sweden.

Mourou and Strickland developed a way to generate high-intensity, ultra-short bursts of laser light. Their work, together with Ashkin’s, paved the way for laser eye surgery to improve vision and studies that can manipulate cells and their innards.

Arthur Ashkin at the Nokia Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J. in 1988. (Nokia Bell Labs via AP)

The work of the three winners constitutes “fundamental breakthroughs in physics that led to tools that are now being used all over science,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences said Ashkin’s development of optical tweezers that can grab tiny particles such as viruses without damaging them realized “an old dream of science fiction,” using the tiny amount of pressure exerted by beams of light to move objects.

That means lasers can be used to push, pull or hold in place tiny objects like atoms, molecules and living cells. Optical tweezers “created entirely new opportunities for observing and controlling the machinery of life,” the Nobel committee said.

“You see the thing work and your heart stops. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck,” said David Grier of New York University, who uses optical tweezers in his research.

With the ability to manipulate tiny cells like sperm and eggs, optical tweezers are used in research involving in vitro fertilization, Grier said. They can also be used to grab and stretch cells, and so distinguish between normal and cancerous cells, he said.

On an even smaller scale, they can be used to study how proteins interact with other molecules in the body, to unfold individual proteins and to study traits like how much torque they exert while rotating. And they can help give insights into how disease causes trouble by interfering with proteins that haul molecular cargo within a cell, said Arne Gennerich of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

Working together, Strickland and Mourou helped develop a way to produce very brief and intense laser pulses that have broad industrial and medical applications, including laser eye surgery and highly precise machine cutting. The academy said their 1985 article on the technique was “revolutionary.”

“With the technique we have developed, laser power has been increased about a million times, maybe even a billion,” Mourou said in a video statement released by Ecole Polytechnique.

Alongside Ashkin, Strickland’s award was also historic being the first Nobel Prize in physics to go to a woman since 1963, when it was won by Maria Goeppert-Mayer; the only other woman to win for physics was Marie Curie in 1903.

Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland, 2018’s Nobel laureates in physics. (Courtesy: Nobel Assembly)

“Obviously, we need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there. And hopefully in time, it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate,” Strickland said in a phone call with the academy after the prize announcement.

On winning the Nobel, she told the AP: “I just find the whole thing surreal.”

Michael Moloney, CEO of the American Institute of Physics, praised all the laureates.

“It is also a personal delight to see Dr. Strickland break the 55-year hiatus since a woman has been awarded a Nobel Prize in physics,” Moloney said.

He credited the work of all three with “expanding what is possible at the extremes of time, space and forms of matter.”

On Monday, American James Allison and Japan’s Tasuku Honjo won the Nobel medicine prize for groundbreaking work in fighting cancer with the body’s own immune system.

The chemistry prize will be announced Wednesday, followed by the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize, which is not technically a Nobel, will be announced October 8.

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