Two physicists at West Virginia University celebrate women’s contributions to the field and highlight the research they’re doing in light of the 2018 Nobel Prize award to Donna Strickland, only the third woman to win the prize in more than a century. Cheng Cen works on surface and interface dynamics, and Micky Holcomb uses pulsed lasers to study a range of materials, including magnets for next-generation computing.
“First of all, we all need to know how to manipulate energy and time, two entangled quantities. What Donna Strickland did successfully is to stretch out the laser pulses in time to temporarily reduce the peak power, with the purpose that those already very strong pulses can be further amplified by materials with ordinary power tolerance. Afterwards, the pulses will be compressed back in time to retain a super-high peak power that is needed for surgery or can be used to alter a material permanently and intentionally. We here are following similar principle but doing things with an opposite approach: we maintain the energy of laser pulses in a controllable range, so we don’t destroy the material we want to investigate. That gives us room to keep the pulses really, really short in time and allows us to detect events that take place within just a few femtoseconds (one hundred thousandth of one millionth of a second).”
“Strickland’s Nobel Prize was awarded for the development of short, intense laser pulses. These ultrafast laser pulses get the most attention, understandably, for their use in targeting cancer cells or corrective eye surgery, but they are also used for ongoing science research. With a short pulse, you can inject a lot more energy into a system without destroying it, which allows you to learn about its properties out of equilibrium. Nonequilibrium physics is a focus of condensed matter physics today, which concerns itself with understanding the fundamental properties of materials that typically leads to the next generation of devices that you cannot live without. Understanding the nonequilibrium dynamics is critical for computing, energy generation and scavenging, sensing and so much more. So while Strickland’s work already has significant impact on humanity, it also allows us to continue to understand materials for future applications.”