Exciting appointment in the Nobel Committee for Physics

27 November 2018

Olga Botner.

Olga Botner has been a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics since 2010 and its chair for the past year.

At the end of the year Olga Botner will step down as a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. They work all year round on identifying discoveries and inventions to be awarded the Nobel Prize. “It has been extremely exciting and rewarding,” she says.

At the end of the year Olga Botner will step down as a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. They work all year round on identifying discoveries and inventions to be awarded the Nobel Prize. “It has been extremely exciting and rewarding,” she says.

Botner is a professor of physics at Uppsala University. She has been a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics since 2010 and chaired it for the past year.

“It has been very exciting to be involved in this. First, having the opportunity to take part is unique, and then you are able to spend time reading about something you are not an expert in, and to do so with a good conscience. I have got to know many people who are very prominent in their fields and have been able to attend conferences that I would not normally have gone to.”

Work on selecting physics prize laureates already starts in September of the preceding year, when letters are sent to hundreds of universities around the world asking them to identify individuals to be allowed to make nominations. This is because the Nobel Prize is based on personal nominations.

"At the start of February we have some 400–500 hundred nominations in front of us and that is when the work of the Committee starts. We decide on some twenty areas that we want to take a closer look at, and there we engage experts.”

A handful of areas selected

Their reports are usually ready at the end of May, and in the summer the Committee continues work on narrowing down the list to a handful of areas to be considered in that particular year.

“Then we have two meetings in August and, at the second of them, the Committee decides who to award the prize. This decision is sent to the President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and then the decision is taken by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on the same day as when the announcement is made.

It is kept secret until then, but there is a Physics Class in the Academy that discusses the decision of the Committee and that can make its own recommendations.

Are there lots of discussions?
“Yes, for instance you have to be very careful about the prize citation as it may be of importance for what prizes can be considered in the future. If the area covered is too large, this will present difficulties since the prize cannot be given for the same area twice. You have to be very clear about what you are giving the prize for.

Clear instructions from Nobel

The instructions from Alfred Nobel are clear in the specific case of the Nobel Prize in Physics. It has to be a discovery or an invention that is to the benefit of humanity. So an improvement is not sufficient, unlike the Chemistry Prize.

This year one half of the Prize is going to Arthur Ashkin’s discovery of the “optical tweezers” while the other half is going to Donna Strickland’s and Gérard Mourou’s discovery of ultra-short, high-intensity laser pulses. One of the laureates, Donna Strickland, is coming to Uppsala and is going to lecture in the University Aula along with the three chemistry laureates.

“This is wonderful, and I think it is good that they will be lecturing in the Aula and not at the Ångström Laboratory so that the whole of the city will have access to the laureates. The Aula takes a lot of people and is in the city centre” says Botner.

Optics and lasers attracting wide interest

She thinks she can see that this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics has really attracted wide interest. Ashkin’s discovery, the “optical tweezers” can use light to move objects and hold them in position and to handle living cells in a non-invasive way. The other discovery, made by Strickland and Morou, is also fascinating.

“They have overcome a difficulty that made it impossible to increase the strength of a laser pulse as much as is wanted without destroying the gain medium within the laser. Their discovery is a way of stretching out the laser pulses in time and then amplifying them and compressing them, making an enormous increase in laser intensity possible. It sounds so simple, but having the idea and implementing it technically is fantastic.

Solved a scientific problem

Strickland was a doctoral student when she made the discovery and presented it in her doctoral thesis. The method then spread and has become very important in a wide range of areas. One example is the microfabrication of components, when the aim is to increase laser strength while doing as little damage as possible to the surrounding material. There are also medical applications, in eye operations and in dental care.

”In physics it was a major discovery, opening the way to ultra-short pulses that made it possible to see electron movements. For Strickland it was a way of overcoming a scientific problem, of taking one more step,” says Botner.

Fundamental research important

It is often the case that discoveries in basic research also lead to applications in society. But it can take time to know how big the breakthrough will be.

“This is why fundamental research is important. I usually say that fundamental research is discovery-driven; researchers want to discover something new, and then there are often applications to come. The Nobel Prizes, as such, highlight the necessity of discovery-driven basic research since we cannot foresee what the applications will be.”

Friday 7 December marks the start of the Nobel Week, an intensive period for Botner that will end with the Nobel Lunch at Uppsala Castle on 13 December. This will be her last major task as the chair and a member of the Committee before stepping down at the end of the year.

How does it feel to be leaving the Committee?
“It is going to be empty, these have been exciting and rewarding years. But you must be able to step down and make way for someone else. It is really good to have rotating posts where the term has also been set in advance.”