Ultra-fast laser research wins top prize

Henry Kapteyn and Margaret Murnane

Henry Kapteyn and Margaret Murnane

University of Colorado Professors Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn have won a prestigious award for groundbreaking strides in laser science.

The pair has won the 2010 Arthur L. Schawlow Prize in Laser Science from the American Physical Society, an award whose recipients read like a “who’s who of laser science,” said Paul Beale, a professor and chair of CU’s physics department.

The American Physical Society is recognizing Murnane and Kapteyn for “pioneering work in the area of ultra-fast laser science, including development of ultra-fast optical and coherent soft X-ray sources.”

Murnane and Kapteyn lead an interdisciplinary research group at CU’s Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, where they develop new ultrafast laser and X-ray sources for experiments in physics, chemistry, materials science and engineering.

In past work, the group developed a laser that can generate very stable pulses lasting only a few cycles or “waves” of light that is now used throughout the world. Many of the group’s current projects involve generating and using “laser-like” beams of short-wavelength light—up to 1,000 times shorter than visible light.

These wavelengths make it possible to generate attosecond-duration light pulses, to “see” small features and to “write” small patterns in applications, including making a movie of how the electron cloud in a chemical bond changes shape as a molecule breaks apart, following how fast a magnetic material can flip orientation, understanding how fast heat flows in a nanocircuit, or building a microscope without lenses.

An attosecond is one quintillionth of a second. It is related to a second as a second is related to the age of the universe—about 14 billion years.

In the future it may be possible to generate bright beams of coherent hard X-rays on a tabletop, which could revolutionize crystallography, biological, materials and medical imaging.

The Schawlow Prize, which includes a $10,000 award, was endowed in 1991 by the NEC Corporation to recognize outstanding basic research that uses lasers to “advance our knowledge of the fundamental physical properties of materials and their interaction with light.” This year is the 50th anniversary of the first experimental demonstration of a laser by Ted Maiman in 1960, who received his undergraduate degree in engineering physics from CU.

Previous local winners of the Schawlow Prize include CU Nobel laureates Carl E. Wieman and John L. Hall and the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s James Bergquist and David Wineland.

Kapteyn and Murnane have a string of publications in some of the most prestigious natural-science journals, including Nature, Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kapteyn won the National Science Foundation Young Investigator award in 1992 and the Optical Society of America’s Adolph Lomb Medal in 1993. He became a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2008.

Murnane is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the Optical Society of America. In 2000, she was named a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow, often called a “genius grant.” In 2004, she became a fellow of AAAS and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kapteyn and Murnane also shared the 2009 Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science and Technology.

By Clint Talbott

Feb. 12, 2010

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