Paul Corkum bags Isaac Newton Medal from Institute of Physics

Paul Corkum
Award winning: Paul Corkum developed attosecond lasers and he can fix your car. (Courtesy: National Research Council of Canada)

Paul Corkum has won the Isaac Newton Medal and Prize, which is awarded by the Institute of Physics (IOP) for “world-leading contributions to physics”. The Canadian physicist is based at the University of Ottawa, where he is National Research Council-Canada Research Chair in Attosecond Photonics.

“Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists to have ever lived, having laid the foundation for much of modern physics,” said Corkum, adding, “It is therefore a tremendous honour to receive a prize named after him. While I may be the first Canadian to win this award, I am surely not the last, as this is a golden age for Canadian science.”

Corkum is honoured for his pioneering work on creating ultrashort attosecond (10-18 s) laser pulses and using them to observe ultrafast chemical processes in real time. Working with the Hungarian physicist Ferenc Krausz, Corkum was the first to create 650 as pulses. Attosecond pulses have become an important tool for chemists and condensed-matter physicists because this is the timescale that that electrons move within atoms and molecules.

Corkum then went on to use ultrashort pulses to study a range of phenomena – developing techniques to obtain the first-ever real-time image of a molecular orbital and the first-ever space-time image of an attosecond pulse.

Debt to car repair

A native of St John, New Brunswick, Corkum began his career as a theoretical physicist by doing a PhD in at Lehigh University in the US. His dissertation was related to the physics of lasers and he soon found himself in the laboratory. “I was looking for a job when I completed my PhD studies and I was offered one in an experimental lab, he says. “But it is one thing for me to be willing to take a position as a post-doctoral fellow in an experimental lab, and yet another to be considered a viable candidate. The latter I owe to car repair.”

The Isaac Newton Medal includes a prize of £1000 and is the only one of the IOP’s awards that is open to an international field beyond the shores of the UK and Ireland. Corkum will give the Isaac Newton Lecture in London at a date to be confirmed and the IOP has published an interview with the winner.

The IOP has also announced the winners of 21 other awards today and you can find a full list here.