Anne L’Huillier, a professor at Sweden’s Lund University, was in the middle of a lecture when she received word that she had been named one of the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. After hanging up the phone, she returned to her classroom. “The last half hour was a bit difficult to do,” said L’Huillier during a news conference with Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the annual prizes.
L’Huillier, Pierre Agostini and Ferenc Krausz were today (Oct. 3) announced as Nobel laureates in physics for their work on attosecond physics. To get a sense of scale, there are as many attoseconds in a single second as there have been seconds in the entire history of the university. Through experiments that created attosecond pulses of light to measure extremely rapid processes, the three scientists have opened the doors to studying the mechanisms inside atoms and molecules.
“The next step will be utilizing them,” said Eva Olsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, in a statement. The techniques L’Huillier and her co-recipients employed could lead to advances in electronics and medical diagnostics.
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In 2001, Agostini and Krausz conducted independent experiments that generated pulses of light lasting 250 attoseconds and 650 attoseconds respectively. Agostini is currently a professor at Ohio State University, while Krausz is director of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics.
L’Huillier, meanwhile, was honored for her 1987 experiments that paved a way forward for the study of electron dynamics. As of today, she is the fifth woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Physics in its more than 120-year history. “It means a lot,” said the French-born physicist of receiving the prize. “As you know, there are not so many women that get this prize, so it’s very very special.”
Who are the other female winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics?
The woman recognized most recently as a Nobel laureate was Andrea Ghez, an American astrophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was awarded the prize in 2020 for her work on the discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. “I take very seriously the responsibility associated with being the fourth woman to win the Nobel Prize,” said Ghez when the prize was awarded. “I hope I can inspire other young women into the field.”
Her award came two years after the announcement of Donna Strickland, a Canadian professor at the University of Waterloo, as one of the Nobel Prize of Physics recipients of 2018. Strickland, who made major contributions to the field of laser physics, reacted in shock when told she was only the third female physicist to have won a Nobel Prize. “Is that all, really? I thought there might’ve been more,” said Strickland during the prize’s press conference. “Hopefully in time it’ll start moving forward at a faster rate.”
Strickland’s win also highlighted bias on Wikipedia. “What does a female scientist have to do to get her own Wikipedia page? Literally win the Nobel Prize,” wrote The website did add a page for the physicist shortly after the Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s announcement, but it had previously rejected user submissions, claiming Strickland was not qualified enough.
The gap between Strickland and the previous female Nobel Prize in Physics winner stretches back more than 55 years. German scientist Maria Goeppert Mayer, who won the prize in 1963, emigrated to the U.S., where she worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II and taught at the University of California in San Diego. She was eventually recognized as a Nobel laureate for her involvement in discoveries relating to nuclear shell structures.
Meanwhile, Marie Curie was the first woman to ever win the award. Recognized in 1903 alongside her husband Pierre for their work on radiation, Curie later also became a Nobel laureate in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium and polonium, making her the first person ever awarded two Nobel Prizes.
The famed physicist and chemist was born in Warsaw before moving to France and studying at the University of Paris, which would eventually rename its scientific institute the Pierre and Marie Curie University. As it turns out, L’Huillier received her PhD from the school in 1986, one year before she began making her award-winning discoveries.