Arthur Ashkin

Arthur Ashkin, known for his pioneering work to create optical tweezers, was born on Sept. 2, 1922. He received a B.A. in physics from Columbia College in 1947 and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Cornell University in 1952. Ashkin worked at the Columbia Radiation Lab from 1942 to 1945 while in the Army and at AT&T Bell Laboratories from 1952 to 1991. At Bell Labs Ashkin researched microwaves, nonlinear optics, and laser trapping. With colleagues he made the first observation of continuous wave (cw) laser harmonic generation, cw parametric amplification, discovered the photorefractive effect, and initiated the field of nonlinear optics in optical fibers.
Many consider Ashkin the father of laser radiation pressure. His work in this area concerned the optical trapping and manipulation of small dielectric particles using optical gradient forces. Ashkin achieved a number of “firsts.” He was the first to observe optical gradient forces on atoms and the first to perform laser cooling of atoms known as “optical molasses.” He also was the first to observe optical trapping of atoms.
Ashkin extended this work to the trapping and manipulation of living material such as bacteria, viruses, and cells. The laser technique for holding material in place became known as “optical tweezers.” Using this approach, Ashkin explored the interior of a cell, manipulating its inner structures, and laying the foundation for new ways to understand normal and diseased states in the human body. The ability to cool and trap atoms has led to spectacular advances in basic science, such as the creation of Bose-Einstein condensates in atomic vapor.

Ashkin is the author of Optical Trapping and Manipulation of Neutral Particles Using Lasers, and holds 47 patents. Awards and honors recognizing his scientific contributions include election to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, OSA’s Ives Medal/ Quinn award and Townes award, the IEEE Laser and Electro-Optic Society’s Quantum Electronics award, the APS Joseph F. Keithley award for advances in measurement science, and the Rank Prize in opto-electronics. Ashkin was elected fellow of APS, OSA, IEEE, and AAAS.