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In Memoriam: Arthur Ashkin

Date Announced: 28 Sep 2020

Arthur Ashkin was awarded the 2018 Physics Nobel Prize for inventing "optical tweezers."

Arthur Ashkin was awarded the 2018 Physics Nobel Prize

SPIE, Bellingham, Washington -- Arthur Ashkin, who pioneered the early development of optical tweezers, passed away on 21 September at the age of 98.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Ashkin served in the US Army from 1942 to 1945, while working at the Columbia Radiation Lab. After receiving a BA in physics from Columbia University in 1947 and a PhD in nuclear physics from Cornell University in 1952, he began a 40-year career at Bell Labs where he would do his Nobel Prize-winning work.

At Bell, Ashkin began working on the manipulation of microparticles with laser light, which would result in the invention of optical tweezers in 1986. The tweezers use laser light to push small particles towards the center of the beam and hold them there. These "laser beam fingers" can grab particles, atoms, molecules, and living cells without harming them.

This approach has been used to explore the interior of a cell, manipulate its inner structures, and lay the foundation for greater understanding of normal and diseased states in the human body. The ability to cool and trap atoms has led to several advances in basic science, including the creation of Bose-Einstein condensates in atomic vapor.

Nobel Laureate, 2018

For this pioneering work, Ashkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018. Ashkin received half of the prize, with the other half going to French physicist Gérard Mourou and Canadian physicist Donna Strickland, who invented the chirped-pulse amplification (CPA) technique for producing high-energy, ultrashort laser pulses.

At the time, SPIE CEO Kent Rochford noted, "With this year's announcement, we now have a dozen physics Nobel prizes that advanced, or were enabled by, optics and photonics since the invention of the laser." He added that Ashkin's development of optical tweezers "paved the way for laser trapping and cooling techniques that have advanced our understanding and control of quantum mechanical effects that underpin the ‘second quantum revolution' underway today."

Among Ashkin's many other awards and honors are election to the National Academy of Engineering (1984) and the National Academy of Sciences (1996); the Charles Hard Townes Award (1988); the Rank Prize in Opto-Electronics (1993); the Harvey Prize (2004); and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2013).

An SPIE Fellow, Ashkin was the author of Optical Trapping and Manipulation of Neutral Particles Using Lasers, and held 47 patents.


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