On Tuesday morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics to three scientists "for groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics." American Arthur Ashkin was awarded half of the Nobel for inventing "optical tweezers and their application to biological systems," while Gérard Mourou of France and Canadian Donna Strickland were jointly awarded the other half "for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses."
"Ashkin's optical tweezers grab particles, atoms, and molecules with their laser beam fingers," The Royal Swedish Academy said. "They can examine and manipulate viruses, bacteria, and other living cells without damaging them." Comparing Ashkin's invention to science fiction, the academy explained that "optical tweezers make it possible to observe, turn, cut, push, and pull with light. In many laboratories, laser tweezers are used to study biological processes, such as proteins, molecular motors, DNA, or the inner life of cells."
The work of Mourou and Strickland "paved the way toward the shortest and most intense laser pulses created by humankind," creating a technique called chirped pulse amplication where you "take a short laser pulse, stretch it in time, amplify it and squeeze it together again," the Swedish Academy said. "Ultra-sharp laser beams make it possible to cut or drill holes in various materials extremely precisely — even in living matter. Millions of eye operations are performed every year with the sharpest of laser beams."