RUMSON – Though 96-year-old Arthur Ashkin shuffles slowly and uses a cane, it’s obvious when he speaks he is a man who still possesses an impressive and polished intellect.
That was evident to the world in October when the Rumson resident became the oldest person ever to be awarded Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences Nobel Prize for his work in the field of physics.
On Jan. 1, Rumson officials got the chance to honor their brilliant neighbor at the annual borough government reorganization meeting, attended by more than 100 community members.
Welcomed with thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the packed house at Bingham Hall, Ashkin basked in the emotionally stirring moment, fighting back a tear but unable to hide an ear-to-ear smile. At his side was his wife Aline, who he met in the early 1950s while earning a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Cornell University.
“It’s been many years and a lot of this work being honored today I did when I was young man, back when I could stand up and look you in the eye,” said Ashkin, who was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1984, as well as the National Academy of Sciences in 1996, and holds 47 patents. “I greatly appreciate this honor and thank Mayor Hemphill and the residents of Rumson for this recognition.”
Ashkin is considered the father of optical tweezers, a method he developed in the early 1960s that allows for the manipulation of laser beams to trap, hold and transport microscopic objects. The process was eventually refined to maneuver atoms, molecules and biological cells.
It’s the advancements Ashkin has made in this area of study that earned him the designation of Nobel Laureate, an honor he shared with colleagues Donna Strickland, a Canadian optical physicist, and Gerard Mourou, a French scientist who is considered a pioneer in the field of electrical engineering.
A former Bell Labs scientist at Holmdel and Murray Hill, Ashkin began his career in the field of microwaves before transitioning to laser research.
During his time at Bell Labs, Ashkin contributed to various areas of experimental physics. He retired from the laboratory in 1992 but has continued his work at his Rumson home inside a custom laboratory.
“It was an honor and a pleasure to have Dr. Ashkin with us today,” said Mayor Joseph Hemphill, who presented Ashkin with a crystal gift they called the Rumson Vase. “Having him on hand is an inspiration to us all and his work is an inspiration to the world.”
Following the award ceremony, Ashkin was surrounded by admirers, signing autographs on sheets of loose-leaf paper and envelopes, and taking photographs with children.
He even took a moment to discuss physics with Andrea Francini, current NOKIA Bell Labs senior research engineer and a fellow Rumson resident who moved to the area 22 years ago from Italy.
Together the scientists sat in the front row of Bingham Hall and thumbed through a book by the revered Italian physicist and chemist Adolfo Bartoli, who passed away in 1896, but whom Ashkin said was a major influence on his own work.
“This is my bible,” Ashkin said of Bartoli’s text on radiation pressure from thermodynamical considerations.
American physicist Steven Chu, who was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on cooling and trapping atoms, credited Ashkin’s achievements as the basis for his own finding.
Like Chu, Francini said Ashkin’s research process and methods continue to inform the work he and his fellow researchers do today, despite the evolving working conditions and expectations.
“The people who achieve that level, they are a major source of inspiration to us because of the beauty and the fun they had with their research,” Francini said. “The strong foundation we have to do our work is because people like (Dr. Ashkin) showed us the way.”
This article was first published in the Jan. 3-Jan. 10, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.