Ot­tawa physi­cist wins Saudi prize

Paul Corkum and part­ner pi­o­neered high-speed pho­tog­ra­phy of elec­trons

Ottawa Citizen - - CITY - TOM SPEARS

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.

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