Physics professor wins international prize for ultra-fast light pulses

Posted on Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Paul Corkum

By Mike Foster

Physics pioneer Paul Corkum compares his cutting-edge research on photonics, the science of light, to skiing down a hill as fast as he dares. Corkum, a University of Ottawa physics professor and National Research Council (NRC) scientist is in Israel this week to receive the 2013 Harvey Prize for developing the use of ultra-fast pulses of light to observe the tiniest subatomic particles.

Known as the father of attosecond molecular imaging, Corkum was the first person to produce 650-attosecond pulses of light. The research is a sub-set of photonics, and brings physicists closer to controlling the movements of electrons as they move inside molecules. It could lead to advances in telecommunications, computing, engineering and medicine.

New experiments will push the science even further when uOttawa’s new Advanced Research Complex (ARC) opens later this year. We caught up with Corkum, Canada Research Chair in attosecond photonics and director of the NRC-uOttawa Joint Attosecond Science Laboratory (JASLab), to talk about his research and get to know the person behind the scientist.

The trip to Israel to collect the $75,000 Harvey Prize, which is awarded annually by the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, will include an added bonus for his wife, who will meet some long-lost family members.

“My wife’s father was Jewish and he grew up in Lithuania before the Second World War. Things got very bad and ultimately they fled to Canada, where my wife was born. But the family was scattered and it turns out some are in Israel. We will see them for the first time since (my wife) was a child,” explains Corkum.

Q. Can you explain photonics in a few simple words?

A. Photonics is the science and technology of light. It is how to make light well, how to detect it well and how to control it. I wrote the prescription for how to make the absolutely shortest pulses in the world. That is what I get the award for, really. To give you a sense of how short the pulses are, comparing one attosecond to one second is like comparing one second to the age of the universe.

Q. What does it mean to you personally to win this Harvey Prize?

A. It is a great compliment. They are giving the prize to me but in some ways they are giving it to the field. I simply represent it.

Q. Thirteen past recipients of the Harvey Prize have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize. Is this a goal for you?

A. These kinds of prizes say that the world’s scientific community recognizes that this as an important field. To get to the next step of the Nobel Prize is huge. The die is cast and it is not really my die. It is the die of all the people who are working in this area. That is how I see it. I don’t think I should let my head get swelled by this.

Q. What do you think the next big discovery will be in your field of photonics?

A: An experiment that is very exciting right now is to see if we can transfer these ideas that have led to attosecond pulses in gases to solids. That’s really one of the most exciting things in the JASLab that will transfer into the new ARC building at the University of Ottawa. There is a big push in the international community — and I am part of that — to try to make these flashes of light further and further and further in the X-rays. So one can dream, and we have tried to do experiments, to try to get information on the scale of an atom, an angstrom in space — really small — and get it on scale at the very fastest motion. You can dream now for the first time of getting time and space at the very fundamental scale.

Q. The University’s ARC will open this fall. What impact will it have?

A. The labs will be second-to-none in the world. We brought in (physics professor) Robert Boyd, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in quantum nonlinear optics, and we have hired some other people and this gives them great facilities in which to work. It allows for this continual expansion. It starts to bring this large concentration of photonics people together. A great deal of science develops by exchanging ideas in discussion, coming up with an idea, running off and trying it, building, shifting collaborations as you have new ideas.

The benefits of that are hard to underestimate. I am very excited about it. For example, in my case, I have a laboratory right in the basement in the ground, built for stability. Right above my head will be another colleague. We are going to have a hole in the floor and shoot beams up. And right beside me and also above my head, I will have another colleague and we will be able to exchange beams between these three labs in all dimensions, horizontally and vertically. We can do experiments which we could not dream of doing otherwise.

Q. When you were a child, what did you imagine the future would look like?

A. I can’t remember with accuracy. I can remember the days of Sputnik. I wanted to be an astrophysicist because it sounded so great. Now that I think about it, I am not so far away from that.

Q. When did you realize that you wanted to become a scientist?

A. I grew up in quite a conservative religious family and they believed the Bible word for word. I began to understand that science made measurements that were in conflict with that. We could date the age of the dinosaurs and things like that. As I look back on it, it was an interesting problem for a young teenage boy to think about. I began to look at the research and tried to understand how people judged the ages.

Then, when I was at Saint John High School I had a teacher who introduced physics to me in a way that resonated. He explained every law of physics with a logic that I thought was compelling. I had a paper route delivering the Saint John Evening Times Globe at the time and I remember thinking and trying to understand physics as I walked my route.

Q. What do you do to relax and unwind?

A. I love to cross-country ski in the winter. I like opera. I think opera is just amazing because it has the ability to play with your emotions in a way that no other medium can. I am a logical person, so maybe I find it interesting to have something play with this other side of you.

Q. What motivates you to get up in the morning?

A. To work on a subject that you think is important and that nobody in the world has thought of before. I think that is intrinsically fun. This is the intellectual equivalent of getting on your skis and going down the hill as fast as you dare.

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