Arthur Ashkin wasn’t considered the smartest in his family.
That distinction went to his brother, Julius, who became a distinguished physicist and worked on the Manhattan Project, the program that during World War II produced the first nuclear weapons; he later chaired the physics department at Carnegie Mellon University.
When the brothers were young, their Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents “pushed my brother,” said Arthur. “He was the family genius.”
That may be so, but it is Arthur Ashkin who has just scored a singular stunning achievement: At age 96, he became the oldest person ever to become a Nobel laureate. On Oct. 2 he was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in physics for his groundbreaking work in discovering “optical tweezers,” which can capture bacteria and other living organisms with laser “fingers” without harming them.
“It’s really too late,” said Ashkin, a Rumson resident, in a phone interview with NJJN on Oct. 4. “I did my important work in the 1970s and ’80s.” He had, he said, “given up” on expectations for the Nobel.
The announcement that Ashkin had won the award has brought him newfound fame and an avalanche of calls from well-wishers. Earlier that morning, a representative of the Smithsonian Institution came to his house. One of the first to offer congratulations was Rabbi Dov Goldberg of Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson, where Ashkin and his wife, Aline — a retired chemistry teacher who taught at Holmdel High School — are longtime members.
Ashkin shares the award with Gerard Mourou of Ecole Polytechnique in France and the University of Michigan, and Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada, who is only the third woman to win the prize in physics. Ashkin will get half of the approximately $1 million prize while the other two will share the other half.
While working at the world-renowned Bell Labs in Holmdel in 1987, Ashkin developed something that Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in conferring the award, called “an old dream of science fiction — using the radiation pressure of light to move physical objects.”
Mourou and Strickland used that technology to help develop short, intense laser pulses that have an array of industrial and medical uses, including laser eye surgery.
“What I did allows you to pick up a little particle and move it around to another spot so you can study it under a microscope,” said Ashkin, who still maintains a lab in his basement. “I showed that with a laser beam you can levitate things. I trapped little glass spheres and proposed you could eventually trap atoms and other living particles like bacteria and viruses.”
He noted that by studying living organisms, researchers can gain insight into human tissues and diseases and develop a broad perspective on the immensity of the universe.
“If I know how sunlight pushes on you, I can measure how small particles push on one another,” said Ashkin. In the not-too-distant past, he said, it was believed the universe was made up of the sun, the earth, and the planets, but now scientists are certain that the universe contains numerous galaxies and an infinite number of particles — and likely other intelligent life.
“When you study these particles, you begin to understand the scope of the universe,” said Ashkin. “That is what science is.”
His work on the optical tweezers led directly to the optical trapping research for which Steven Chu, another Bell Labs researcher and former secretary of energy in the Obama administration, received a Nobel Prize in 1997. Ashkin said he was part of Chu’s team.
Bells Labs, now owned by Nokia, formerly was home to research and development that supported AT&T during its communications monopoly. Ashkin is the ninth Nobel laureate Bell Labs has produced.
Ashkin, who was born in Brooklyn, said his family name was originally Ashkenazi, but was changed by an immigration officer when his father arrived on Ellis Island from Odessa.
After graduating from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Ashkin earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Columbia University and a doctorate in nuclear physics from Cornell University.
“I was always interested in how things worked, and I liked physics,” he said. “Although I got my Ph.D. in nuclear physics, I never practiced nuclear physics. During the war, I worked on radar in the Army’s Signal Corps. Microwaves are used for radar.”
His work in the Columbia Radiation Lab during World War II further whetted his interest in microwaves, and he later was recruited by an Army colleague to work at Bell Labs in the microwave field; he eventually switched to laser research.
“I was interested in light pressure,” said Ashkin. “That’s how comet tails move. Light shines on them and pushes them.”
When his research proved everything from sperm to e coli bacteria could be trapped alive and studied under a microscope, “Everyone viewed it as a miracle. No one thought it could be done.”
Ashkin, who holds 47 patents and has received numerous other awards over the years, retired from Bell Labs in 1992.
However, he is still active in the scientific field and is currently writing a paper on the importance of solar energy and the effects of climate change.
“It’s important because we’re facing a crisis because of the change in climate,” said Ashkin. “We’re already past the tipping zone, and the whole planet is overheated. Your future is threatened, my future is threatened, and it threatens my kids’ future.”
The Ashkins have two sons, Daniel and Michael; a daughter, Judy; and five grandchildren. If his health allows, he plans to go to Sweden in December to accept the award.