Arthur Ashkin, the world’s oldest Nobel Prize winner, favours 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. Essentially, it relies on reflective concentrator tubes that intensify solar reflections, which could make existing solar panels more efficient or perhaps even replace them altogether with something cheaper and simpler.
The tubes are “dirt cheap,” Ashkin says – they cost just 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, which is essentially a powerful laser beam that can “catch very small things,” as Ashkin describes it.
Optical tweezers can hold and stretch DNA, thereby 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.
But Ashkin is not interested in many Nobel celebrations. He’s already laser-focused on his forthcoming light “concentrators.”
How to levitate
When Ashkin got his fateful call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm 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.
“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 in order 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 realised 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 licence 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,” 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 added. “I invented optical levitation.”
But Ashkin doesn’t linger much on those moments much anymore – after he realised that early-morning Nobel Prize call was real, he was mostly excited about the prospect that the notoriety might help get his latest research published.
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. (He said his house doesn’t have the voltage to run it.)
Down 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 work tables and concrete floor. He has built so many shiny, light-bending contraptions in this basement lab, in fact, 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.
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 [Ashkin]’s still questing to solve great problems despite his Nobel success. And I love that.”
Ashkin says he’ll use the Nobel Prize money to buy his wife a ‘good meal’
Ashkin grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, a bony rail of a kid who was a picky eater and subsisted mostly on milk. His father, a dentist, immigrated from the 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 PhD 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.
When asked how he’ll use his prize money – which amounts to almost $US500,000 – 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 Nobel Prize to celebrate.
“I think one is enough,” she said.