An Intimate (and Fun) Conversation with a Nobel Prize Laureate

“Physics laureate Donna Strickland, left, receives the prize from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden during the Nobel Prize award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall, in Stockholm on Monday. (Pontus Lundahl/Pool Photo/The Associated Press)”

On May 21st, the New England Section of The Optical Society (NES/OSA) had the good fortune to feature a conversation with Dr. Donna Strickland, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018 for her work in creating Chirped Pulse Amplification–ultrashort high-intensity lasers that have become essential  in  laser fusion research, laser eye surgery, and high-density physics research .

It had become a tradition that each year Optikos hosts the last NES/OSA meeting of the season at our Wakefield, Mass. headquarters. While this year’s occasion was marked by the empty and quiet atrium that normally holds dozens of NES/OSA members for this event, those same members, and a lot more tuned in to Zoom to listen to Dr. Strickland’s “conversation.”

She talked us through about a dozen slides that covered some of the delightful moments in the life of a Nobel laureate, and provided engaging answers to her interviewers’ questions, including:

  • What was the most surreal moment of receiving the prize? “The last thing they have you do is sign this book, and before you sign the book, for all the physics people, they start by opening the book to Albert Einstein’s signature. And for me, they showed me Marie Curie’s signature, and then Maria Goeppert Mayer’s signature. So, after you go through and see these unbelievable legends of science, then they say, ‘Please sign the same book.’”
  • Was there any part of the ceremony that made you particularly nervous? “Oh absolutely!” Donna relayed that she was smiling broadly while waiting to receive her medal, in part, due to the “unbelievably tight” dress and anticipating what would happen if the dress “split right down the middle while my back is to the audience, and I’m bowing to the Royal Swedish Academy…”
  • How does your life change? Donna points to a slide, “There we are with the Pope” she says of her photo with her husband Dr. Donald Dykaar, across the table from Pope Francis; then shows the next photo and says, “Not only did I get to meet Brian May of Queen, I actually got to meet Apollo astronauts who have stood on the moon.”
Screen shot from Zoom meeting

Donna answered questions posed by audience members, explaining: the picture of a bust of Alexander Graham Bell that was sculpted by her husband’s grandfather, Victor Salvatore (that is in the Smithsonian); her interest in lending a voice to science literacy; and about the spark that drove her choice of science as a vocation. To that, Dr. Strickland responded that she loved and was “very good at math and science,” adding, “I wasn’t good at anything else!” And that any comments she may have heard about women “not doing this” (a physics career) fortunately did not resonate and so she “ignored them.”

In her unaffected and disarming manner, Dr. Strickland told us, “So this is how crazy my life has become, because I won a Nobel Prize!”

Listen to Dr. Strickland’s Nobel Lecture in Physics 2018

We want to thank local section President, Peter Clark (Optikos), for serving as our Zoom host for the evening and Katherine Calabro (Synopsys) and Stephen D. Fantone (Optikos) for facilitating the conversation.   

Return to Anywhere Light Goes blog.

Written by Susan Hess, Optikos Corporation.

Susan Hess

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