Canadian physicist who won Nobel Prize touts science for the sake of science

Donna Strickland, 59, said securing the field’s highest honour has given her a significant new platform

Winning a Nobel Prize changed nearly everything about Donna Strickland’s professional life except the principles that helped shape it in the first place.

The University of Waterloo professor has watched enrolment in her courses double, landed a promotion at work and begun scheduling global lectures in the two months since she became the third woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in physics.

Strickland, 59, said securing the field’s highest honour has given her a significant new platform from which to share the importance of pursuing science for the sake of understanding how the world works rather than to achieve specific technological breakthroughs.

“Science first needs to be done for the sake of science,” Strickland said in a teleconference from Stockholm, Sweden where she accepted her award. “Then later on you have more scientific knowledge that can be applied to new technologies.”

Strickland said her own Nobel-winning research exemplifies the ways that answering fundamental questions about science can eventually lead to game-changing, practical applications.

Strickland split one half of this year’s Nobel physics prize with French scientist Gerard Mourou, who served as her PH.D adviser in the early 1980s.

Together the two discovered Chirped Pulse Amplification, a technique that underpins today’s short-pulse, high-intensity lasers and became the crucial component to corrective eye surgery.

READ MORE: Canadian physicist collects Nobel Prize

Strickland said she and Mourou were initially motivated by a desire to understand more about how light interacts with matter, adding the specific applications came only once the research was completed.

Strickland and Mourou both collected their shares of the US$1.01-million award on Monday, part of a whirlwind week in which laureates juggle a jam-packed schedule between moments in the lap of luxury. The other half of the Nobel prize went to Arthur Ashkin of the United States, who was the third winner of the award.

Strickland said she’s been revelling in the accommodations at the “magnificent” five-star hotel she’s been occupying since she arrived in Sweden on Dec. 5.

The 11-day trip has seen her both give lectures and hobnob with royalty, she said, describing a post-ceremony dinner with King Carl XVI Gustaf and his family as a fun and enjoyable night.

She even discovered the downside of having a driver and personal attache on hand to cater to her needs, saying their attentiveness made her complacent and resulted in her forgetting tickets to the prize ceremony for both herself and her husband.

“Once people start looking after you, I quit thinking about any details,” she said with a laugh.

Reality will set back in after Strickland returns to Canada. Strickland, who applied for and received full professorship at Waterloo after her Nobel win, said she plans to teach as much as possible while juggling an increasingly hectic schedule of lectures around the world.

Enrolment in her classes has doubled since she was named a Nobel laureate in October, she added.

Strickland said her newfound fame has brought her research before a wider audience, forcing her to learn new ways of communicating the complexities behind her award-winning work in order to connect with those without an extensive science background.

But she said her numerous new speaking engagements, already scheduled into 2020, will explore new territory as well.

Prior to winning the Nobel Prize Strickland said she had developed an interest in how photonics, or the study of light, can be used for environmental measurement and monitoring.

Her win, she said, has given her more of a “political voice” to help educate governments on potentially helpful scientific tools.

“Every country needs to be monitoring their environment now,” she said. “We think photonics has a really big role to play for that.”

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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