ARCHIVED - NRC Scientist Wins Prestigious Award for Revolutionizing Small-Scale Mechanics

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May 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

NRC's Paul Corkum has had the year of his life. Winning Canada's prestigious $100,000 Killam Prize is the latest in a string of accolades he has collected during the past year. The award recognizes him as the father of a revolutionary step in understanding the inner workings of a molecule.

Dr. Paul Corkum likes taking things apart. Though his doctoral degree is in theoretical physics, Corkum says he is a natural experimenter. Fascinated by the inner-workings of just about everything, Corkum once took apart his car engine and reassembled it – and it still worked.

Telling that story got him hired as an experimental physicist at NRC. Now, more than 25 years later, Corkum's tinkering has brought him more success. The difference is, this time he's taking atoms apart and putting them back together again.

This cutting-edge research and Corkum's lifetime of work towards understanding the smallest bits of matter in our universe has earned him the 2006 Killam Prize for natural sciences. The $100,000 Killam purse honours "Canada's finest scholars" and is often likened to a Nobel Prize for Canadians!

From left to right: Laurent Lapierre, Canada Council Board member; Dr. Paul Corkum, NRC scientist; George Cooper, Managing Trustee of the Killam Trusts; John Oliver, Senior Vice-President, Atlantic Region, Scotiabank.
From left to right: Laurent Lapierre, Canada Council Board member; Dr. Paul Corkum, NRC scientist; George Cooper, Managing Trustee of the Killam Trusts; John Oliver, Senior Vice-President, Atlantic Region, Scotiabank.

Corkum didn't just capture the first-ever image of an electron orbiting an atom, but built the conceptual model that allowed him to do so. The result is a revolutionary method that emits a light pulse faster than ever before.

The technique allows for attosecond timing – or a billionth of a billionth of a second (that's a one with 18 zeros before it or 10-18). It is so short a time that one attosecond is to one second as a second is to the age of the universe. The attosecond is one thousand times faster than the femtosecond, which used to be the shortest controlled light pulse.

The image is created by precision targeting a molecule with a high intensity laser pulse. When the pulse hits the atom, it jars part of the outer-most electron out of its orbit. Then the electron part comes crashing back into the atom, emitting an attosecond long X-ray light. A camera sensitive to that light then captures the image.

The technique represents a revolution in the study of the molecule. "Attoseconds mark the time scale of electrons," Corkum says. The difference is that Corkum is using the electron to emit the light used to take an image instead of the laser. It is like using the reflection of your camera flash to capture a picture.

Before Corkum's model, the best image of a molecule depended on the progress of laser technology. Like a new car model that comes out each year, laser technology continued to improve and deliver better performance until it reached its limit in 1986. Now Corkum concentrates all the power of an enormously high-wattage laser burst at one point and fires it for a femtosecond.

Dr. Paul Corkum

"During that brief time it gives out as much power as is consumed in all of Canada itself," Corkum says. "That sounds incredible until you remember my laser only fires for a femtosecond."

The laser pulse kicks the electron into action, and the attosecond light pulse results. Depending on the electron light pulse means the laser has less of a role in taking the image. This marks a breakthrough in molecular imaging.

That breakthrough led to several awards for Corkum in the past year. He received the Optical Society of America's Charles Townes Award, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Quantum Electronics Award. He is a fellow with the Royal Societies of London (UK) and Canada, and recently received the American Physical Society's Arthur L. Schawlow Prize in Laser Science.

The Killam award recognizes the importance of attosecond research and Corkum's name has become synonymous with the word "attosecond."

"Everything about us, everything we wear, is determined by molecules," Corkum says. "We have a lot of work to do before we understand electrons."

Imaging the electron is the first step to unpacking the molecules that make up all the matter of our universe. To get images of smaller, faster particles closer to the centre of a molecule requires even faster light pulses. Yet mapping an entire molecule remains a goal for Corkum.

"I'd like to know where every atom in the molecule is and what the electrons are doing," he says. But the model won't come easily, because dismantling one of the most mysterious objects in science is no small task. But then again, Corkum likes to take things apart.


Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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