Ottawa physicist wins Saudi prize
Paul Corkum and partner pioneered high-speed photography of electrons
As a physicist, Paul Corkum was always intrigued to hear chemistry professors teach that one couldn’t take a picture of an electron zipping around an atom.
“They would say, ‘It’s not real. It’s really a figment of our imagination, but it’s also useful for planning chemical reactions. Learn about it for things like that, but it’s not real.’”
So Corkum went and shot the picture that couldn’t exist.
He enjoys visiting chemistry departments with it today, and his pioneering work has just won him a major international award that he didn’t expect.
At the National Research Council and University of Ottawa, Corkum pioneers a field that does a lot more than make an image of an electron. He creates incredibly brief bursts of laser light to “make the fastest measurements in the world,” including images such as photos from a very fast camera.
Now he has been awarded this year’s King Faisal International Prize in Science, given once a year. He shares it with his longtime collaborator Ferenc Krausz in Munich.
But the award came as a complete surprise to Corkum, who didn’t apply for it. Like the Nobels, it’s given to people who are nominated by someone else.
“I learned (Monday) afternoon from a colleague who congratulated me,” he said. He only received the confirmation fax later in the day.
Four King Faisal Prizes are awarded this year — for science, medicine, Arabic language and literature, and service to Islam.
They are awarded for work “which make a significant contribution to the body of knowledge belonging to humankind” and “exceptional achievements in humanitarian work.”
Beyond that, Corkum is still a bit baffled by the unexpected good news.
He has learned the award ceremony is in Saudi Arabia in March, but he doesn’t know yet exactly where or when.
There’s an award of $200,000, which be believes he shares with Ferenc Krausz. He doesn’t know whether it’s a personal award or lab funding. There’s also “a gold plaque or gold medal of some sort.”
“I didn’t read the nomination materials, nor do I know what it’s even given for, exactly,” he said. But he and Krausz are known generally for “attosecond” science — measuring bursts of laser light just a few billionths of a billionth of one second long, and in short wavelengths.
“It’s sort of introducing a whole new approach in the way light interacts with materials,” he said. “It’s just completely new tools.”
He was nominated months ago by last year’s winner, Richard Zare, head of chemistry at Stanford University.
“I thought, gosh, this is really great,” Corkum said. Then he promptly forgot all about it. After all, he reasoned, with just one prize for all the world’s scientists, what were the odds?
“It’s really wonderful,” he said.
Dr. Paul Corkum is a laser scientist with the NRC who, along with a colleague based in Germany, has just won the King Faisal prize for science, a major international award.