Winning a Nobel Prize is no Easy Feat

By Thabiso Goba. Winning a Nobel Prize in Physics is no easy feat and achieving this with your first paper is something else, said Professor Donna Strickland, who was speaking at the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting held from 30 June to 5 July in Lindau, Germany.

Twenty young scientists from South Africa nominated by ASSAf and funded by the DST are attending this prestigious Meeting.

Strickland, along with her supervisor Gérard Mourou, published the paper Compression of amplified chirped optical pulses in 1985, when she was still a doctoral student.

After 30 years, with her work standing the test of time, the Nobel committee confer her with a Nobel Prize last year, catapulting Strickland into international stardom.

At this year’s 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, Strickland was one of the most sought-after Laureates. Her talk and open exchange sessions drew capacity crowds.

On day two of the meeting, Strickland hosted an open exchange with young scientists initially earmarked for an hour and a half, it stretched to two hours, with the audience captivated by her charisma, quick wit and self-deprecating humour.

The exchange started off on an academic note, with Strickland explaining how she managed to generate ultra-high intensity lasers without destroying the amplifications that support it.

“I (always) say I built a laser hammer,” she explained. “It is the same as trying to push a nail into a piece of wood, you push with all your might and it does not go in but you take a hammer and it does.”

“A one-second laser pulse is 300 000 kilometres long. If you take all that energy and squeeze it to less than a third of a millimetre, that photon density is the same thing as a laser hammer,” said Strickland.

Her work changed how light interacted with matter by removing electrons straight from atoms instead of heating it with a laser.

As only the third female Nobel Laureate in Physics, it was inevitable that the questions would focus on her gender and women in science, a topic that Strickland has tried to move away from.

In a number of published interviews, Strickland maintained she sees herself as a scientist rather than a woman in science.

When a young female scientist from the audience asked Strickland how it feels to be a women Laureate, she threw her head back, let out a heavy sigh, before engaging sincerely with the question saying the topic of her gender has overshadowed the prize to a certain extent.

“My walk through life is not like any other women’s walk through life, so I have a little bit of trouble being this role model because I have not been plagued by the situations I have heard of,” she said.

“I just have not had these problems that I know other women had. I get that things have to change, so I am just waiting for the next woman to win it.”

Strickland and her husband, Douglas Dykaar, joined the South African young scientists’ delegation on Tuesday, 2 July for dinner.

The 20 young scientists all had a turn to pick her brains on a number of issues from laser physics, student life and other personal topics.

At the end of the dinner, Strickland expressed gratitude to her hosts.

Twenty young Academy of Science South Africa (ASSAf)-nominated South African (SA) scientists are at Lindau this year. Funding for the SA young scientists has been provided by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The South African young scientists are: Tariq Blecher, Rhodes University/Square Kilometre Array; Stive Djiokop, Nelson Mandela University (NMU); Jake Gordin, University of Cape Town (UCT); Thandi Gumede, Central University of Technology; Justin Harrisson, University of Pretoria (UP); Julia Healy, UCT/ South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO); Jan Louw, Stellenbosch University; Genevéve Marx, NMU; Itumeleng Monageng, UCT/ South African Astronomical Observatory; Francis Otieno, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits); Valentine Saasa, UP/Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; Michael Sarkis, Wits; Hester Schutte, North-West University (NWU); Katekani Shingange, University of the Free State ; Sinenhlanhla Sikhosana, University of KwaZulu-Natal; Kimeel Sooknunan, UCT; Tanita Ramburuth-Hurt, Wits; Johannes Thiersen, NWU; Nicole Thomas, University of the Western Cape/ SARAO; Danielle Venter, NMU.