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Alumnus receives Canada’s most prestigious science award



Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper awards the Herzberg gold medal, Canada's top science prize, to Paul Corkum '72 Ph.D. in Ottawa.

Paul Corkum, who earned a Ph.D. in physics from Lehigh in 1972, has won the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, the most prestigious science prize given in Canada.

The medal, the highest honor from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), includes $1 million in research funding.

Corkum, an experimental physicist at the University of Ottawa, is a pioneer in the new field of attosecond science. One attosecond is a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second, or one over one followed by 18 zeros (1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000) of a second.

Or, as Corkum says, “Comparing one attosecond to one second is like comparing one second to the age of the universe. At this speed we are looking at the microworld of atoms and molecules on its own time and space scale.”

Corkum, who is the attosecond science researcher at Canada’s National Research Council, uses lasers with attosecond pulses to take photographs of electrons as they orbit inside atoms. Several years ago, he became the first scientist to photograph an electron when he and his team took a snapshot of an electron in a nitrogen molecule.

The goal of Corkum’s research is to control the movements of electrons, a breakthrough that could have applications in computing, diagnostic medicine and other fields. In an interview in 2004 with National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, he said he also hopes to observe the forming and breaking of chemical bonds.

The NSERC Herzberg Medal is given annually to a person who has shown sustained excellence and influence for research carried out in Canada that has led to significant advances in the natural sciences or engineering.

“The awards are not only to me, but to my whole sub-field”

The medal is the latest of many accolades and prizes Corkum has won in recent years. In 2008, he received NSERC’s John C. Polanyi Award for outstanding advances in natural science for research probing the intensity with which laser light pulses interact with atoms and molecules.

In 2006, Corkum received the Izaak-Walton-Killam Award, which is given each year to five Canadian researchers who have distinguished themselves in the social, human, natural or health sciences.

In 2005, at the Conference for Lasers and Electron Optics (CLEO), Corkum received the Quantum Electronics Award from IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and the Charles H. Townes Award from OSA (the Optical Society of America). Four awards are given at CLEO each year. Corkum was the first person to win two in the same year.

That same year, Corkum was accepted as a member of the Royal Society of Britain. Corkum has also been appointed to the Order of Canada.

Other honors include Canada’s highest physics award, the Canadian Association of Physicists gold medal for lifetime achievement in physics, and the Einstein Award, which is given by the Society for Optical and Quantum Electronics.

Corkum put his awards in perspective after the CLEO conference of 2005 when he said, “The awards are not only to me, but to my whole sub-field. Scientists always build on other people’s work.”

-- Kurt Pfitzer and Becky Straw

Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press


Posted on Thursday, April 02, 2009

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