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Paul Corkum recognized for work in physics

Photo: Creative Commons, Thomas Fischer Rare Book Library

University of Ottawa physics professor Paul Corkum has had a hectic week. After delivering a speech in Halifax, he flew to Montreal to receive an honorary degree from Sherbrooke University. He then went home to Ottawa before flying to Brussels later that day.

Oh, and he found out that he might win a Nobel Prize in two weeks.

Corkum is among 18 scientists from around the world chosen by Thomson Reuters as possible Nobel Prize winners.. Independent of the discussions of the Swedish and Norwegian committees who award Nobel Prizes, the predictions are based mainly on citations of published scientific literature. Thomson Reuters has predicted 37 Nobel winners since it’s inception in 2002.

“I was in Halifax to give a public lecture, and it was announced so people there were very pleased. Well it was good advertisement for the public lecture wasn’t it?” said Corkum with a laugh.

Corkum, who worked alongside Ferenc Krausz of the Max Planck Institute in Garching, Germany, is being recognized for his work in developing attosecond flashes—flashes of light that last one millionth of one millionth of one millionth of a second, explained Corkum.

“An attosecond is to a second, as a second is to the age of the universe,” he said.

The new technology is important in learning more about electrons, one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe, said Corkum.

He is also a member of the National Research Council of Canada, the primary national research and technology organization in the country, which recently shifted funding to more market-driven research.

“The National Research Council still supports work in this area of science, they would like to find applications that come out of it to a certain extent, but they still support the work,” said Corkum. While they haven’t yet found applications for attoseconds, the processes used to make attosecond pulses, “can be applied in other ways.”

If he were to win, Corkum would be the 24th Canadian to win a Nobel, the third to win in physics. The last Canadian to take home the prize was renowned writer Alice Munro, who won in 2013. The announcement comes at an interesting time in the Canadian scientific community, which has suffered numerous funding cuts at the federal level.

According to a 2013 report from the Public Service of Canada, 37 per cent of federal researchers said they had been directly stopped from sharing their expertise with the media or public within the last five years. Nearly one quarter of the scientists surveyed said they had been forced to modify their conclusions of their research for non-scientific reasons.

However, Corkum pointed to other Canadian scientists who have also been short-listed for the Nobel Prize in physics. “Isn’t it wonderful?” said Corkum “It’s a very select list and it tells you something about an underlying strength here.”

Another factor to consider is Canada’s highly educated population. A 2009 Statistics Canada report found that 50 per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 had some sort of post-secondary education—20 points above the average of reporting OECD countries in that year.

Future scientists need to find what’s interesting to only them, said Corkum. “What makes science great is that it builds on this big edifice that people have made over the centuries of science, and you edge your piece, and that piece helps make it to the next level,” he said.

The Nobel Prize in physics will be announced on Oct. 6 in Stockholm Sweden, by Göran K. Hansson, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.