- At 96, Arthur Ashkin is the oldest person to ever be awarded a Nobel Prize.
- Ashkin won half the 2018 prize in physics for his role in developing technology that makes very small beings "levitate" using only light. He did that work at Bell Labs in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.
- His discovery spurred the invention of optical tweezers, which have been used to stretch DNA and invent a life-saving malaria test, among other medical uses.
- The Nobel laureate says he's not done inventing yet: His lifelong obsession with light has taken a recent turn toward solar energy.
RUMSON, New Jersey Arthur Ashkin, the world's oldest Nobel Prize winner, favors comfort over style.
When I met him in his New Jersey home, he was sporting a fleece-lined zip-up, corduroy pants, and fuzz-lined Crocs.
The outfit makes sense for someone who spends a lot of time tinkering with new inventions in the basement.
Ashkin, who's 96 years old, has turned the bottom floor of his house into a kind of laboratory where he's developing a solar-energy-harnessing device.
"I'm making cheap electricity," he said.
Ashkin's new invention uses geometry to capture and funnel light. It relies on reflective concentrator tubes that intensify solar reflections, which could make existing solar panels more efficient or perhaps replace them with something cheaper and simpler.
The tubes are "dirt cheap," Ashkin says costing pennies to create which is why he thinks they "will save the world."
He's even got his eye on a second Nobel Prize.
"And I'm gonna win too," he said.
Ashkin's lifelong fascination with light has already saved countless lives. He shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in physics for his role in inventing a tiny object-levitating technology called optical tweezers, a powerful laser beam that can "catch very small things," as Ashkin describes it.
Optical tweezers can hold and stretch DNA, helping us probe some of the biggest mysteries of life.
The technique has been used in biology, nanotechnology, spectroscopy and more; it has helped researchers develop a malaria blood test and better understand how cholesterol-lowering drugs soften our red blood cells.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/Charles Platiau/Peter Power你rthur Ashkin, left, won half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in physics. The other half was split between Gerard Mourou of France, center, and Donna Strickland of Canada, right, who became the third woman awarded the physics prize since 1901.:figure]
But Ashkin is not interested in many Nobel celebrations. He's already focused on his forthcoming light "concentrators."
How to levitate
When Ashkin got his fateful call from Stockholm's Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, on October 2, he thought it was a scam.
That's because another scientist, former US Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, had already shared the 1997 Nobel for some related research at Bell Labs, which was where Ashkin had worked when he developed the optical tweezers.
Chu's work built on Ashkin's, which had involved gathering pond scum, plopping the wiggly organisms under a microscope, and making them "levitate," as Ashkin describes it, using only a laser beam.
Nokia Bell Labs你shkin working with a laser at Bell Labs in 1970.:figure]
"This light is shining on you. Do you know that it's pushing you?" he asked me, pointing to a nearby lamp. "Most people don't. But it is, because it's got energy. The only thing is, it's so small you don't feel it."
Ashkin started researching these properties of light to improve communications technology for Bell.
"Light is a wave, right?" he said. "In physics, it's also a particle... and it's sort of a mysterious particle."
But once Ashkin realized that pressure from photons, the fundamental particles of light, could pick up very small objects, he pivoted to focus on biology and started using optical tweezers to trap, lift, pull, and stretch things as small as DNA.
Bell Labs gave Ashkin license to explore the ways this technique might apply to living beings, and he figured out how to hold single-celled organisms hostage using light.
"You can tweeze them just like you would with tweezers," the current Nokia Bell Labs president, Marcus Weldon, said "[Ashkin] could move nuclei around themselves, and they could do all these cool things."
Some of Ashkin's Bell Labs colleagues were dumbfounded when he caught critters in the light for the first time, he recalled.
"'Oh, you got to see this Ashkin's trapping bugs! He's trapping bugs!'" he remembers someone shouting.
"It surprised me. It would surprise anybody," Ashkin said. "I invented optical levitation."
But Ashkin doesn't linger much on those moments much anymore. After he realized that early-morning Nobel Prize call was real, he was mostly excited about the prospect that his popularity might help get his latest research published.
Hilary Brueck/Business Insider你shkin with one of the microscopes he used when he was a researcher at Bell Labs.:figure]
When Ashkin retired from Bell Labs, in 1992, the labs gave him his levitation equipment to take home. He took everything but the all-important high-powered laser. His house doesn't have the voltage to run it.
In his basement, Ashkin now works with his curved spine hunched over a workbench. The cane he uses to walk around upstairs is cast aside and forgotten. Rolls of masking tape and silver reflective paper litter the wooden worktables and concrete floor. He has built so many shiny, light-bending contraptions in this basement lab that some are overflowing into his garage, leaving barely enough room for the family car.
Ashkin has already filed the necessary patent paperwork (he holds at least 47 patents to date) for his new invention, but said he isn't ready to share photos of the concentrators with the public just yet.
Soon, he hopes to publish his results in the journal Science.
Hilary Brueck/Business Insider你shkin in his basement lab on December 21, 2018.:figure]
He's confident that once the design is released, the new technology will ricochet around the world, from his home in New Jersey to India and beyond, providing inexpensive, clean, renewable power to homes and businesses.
"Great intellects generally don't rest," Weldon said. "It's clear that he is still questing to solve great problems despite his Nobel success. And I love that."
Ashkin says he'll use the Nobel money to buy his wife a 'good meal'
Ashkin grew up in Brooklyn, New York, during the Great Depression, a bony rail of a kid who was a picky eater and subsisted mostly on milk. His father, a dentist, emigrated from Ukraine. The only book he remembers the family owning was "The Book of Knowledge: The Children's Encyclopedia (That Leads to Love of Learning)."
Ashkin devoured the tome especially the sections that featured a character named "Wonder Why."
"Wonder Why would say, 'Why is the sky blue?'" Ashkin recalled. "Then Wonder Why would tell you. I was fascinated, because I wanted to know how things worked... that was my introduction to science."
That curiosity eventually led Ashkin to get his doctorate at Cornell. There he met a woman named Aline, who would become his wife of 64 years.
"I was very shy, but I knew that this lady was special," Ashkin said. "So I had enough nerve to ask for her phone number."
Ashkin asserts that he never took a chemistry class because he learned everything he needed to know about it from his wife, a chemistry whiz 10 years his junior.
"I married her because she is smart!" he said. The feeling is mutual.
"I really am surprised that at the age of 96 he is so much with it and so brilliant," Aline said, though she added: "He's a little bit cranky now, at times."
The Nobel laureate agreed: "I can be cranky," Ashkin said.
Hilary Brueck/Business Insider你shkin, 96, and his wife, Aline, 86 at their New Jersey home on December 21, 2018.:figure]
When asked how he'll use his prize money which amounts to almost $500,000 Ashkin said he's got one idea in mind.
"I want to take Aline to a good restaurant, and we'll have a good meal," he said. His wife said there are five grandchildren going to college soon who could probably use a good chunk of that money too.
While Ashkin is looking forward to revealing his next invention to the world, his wife doesn't see any reason to wait for a second prize to celebrate.
"I think one is enough," she said.