One Sunday morning, what he originally suspected to be a scam call left Professor Paul Corkum pleasantly surprised: he was co-awarded the Wolf Prize for his work in attosecond physics! This prestigious award is bestowed annually upon “scientists and artists of various fields to celebrate their achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations amongst peoples”. In the fields of Physics and Chemistry, the Wolf Prize is often considered the most prestigious award after the Nobel Prize. The 2022 Wolf Prize in Physics was awarded to Paul Corkum, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier for their pioneering contributions to the field of ultrafast laser science and attosecond physics.
Attosecond science is a branch of physics focusing on electrons within matter and the processes in which they are involved, such as ionization. Prof. Corkum’s interest in attoseconds — which are 1 x 10-18 of a second — piqued soon after joining the National Research Council of Canada, where he discovered how to make attosecond laser pulses.
These short pulses of light formed by the movement of electrons are a universal response across all matter, which help us see where and when something happens. The complex interplay between electrons and light has made it possible to observe and “fingerprint” molecular orbitals. Prof. Corkum believes that attosecond pulses combined with methods of nanotechnology will allow us to observe and manipulate materials on the size scale of organelles within cells, opening potential applications of attoseconds in biology.
According to Prof. Corkum, finding new applications for fundamental science discoveries is what keeps science fun and never-ending. His own ever-growing passion for attosecond physics led him to be recognised with numerous awards and honours, including the Willis E. Lamb Award for Laser Science and Quantum Optics, the Isaac Newton Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics, the Royal Medal from the Royal Society (London), the King Faizal International Prize for Science, and the Harvey Prize from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, to name only a few.
When thinking back on his illustrious career, Professor Corkum is reminded of the unexpected paradox surrounding the profession of science. “It’s quite funny that we have an extroverted profession that attracts introverts,” he observes.
This highly social aspect of science is crucial for scientists of all fields to collaborate and share their findings, both among themselves and with the non-scientific community. Such engagement fosters a global climate for sharing innovative science for the betterment of everyone. These values are also at the core of the Wolf Prize.