Studentafton with Nobel prize laureates Dr. Donna Strickland and Dr. Gérard Mourou

On the 14th of December, Studentafton and Lunds Universitets Studentkårer had the pleasure of hosting professor Donna Strickland and professor Gérard Mourou, two of the 2018 Nobel Prize laureates in Physics. The evening included discussions about the balance between social life and a professional career, their experience of being awarded the most prestigious prize in academia as well as motivational advices to aspiring academics in the crowd. The evening was held in the Lund University Main Building and moderated by author and lecturer Catarina Rolfsdotter-Jansson.

Where were you when you received the news of you being awarded the Nobel Prize?
Moderator Rolfsdotter-Jansson kicks off the evening by taking us back to where the journey began. Professor Donna Strickland shares a vivid account of the morning she received “an important call from Sweden”. She goes on to tell an engaging story of confusion, mischievous phones and a potentially hacked email account. After a long but ecstatic morning the news was all over the world and Canadian media outlets were especially proud. Strickland is the first women in 55 years to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, yet Canadian newspapers were chock-full of stories about a Canadian laureate. In contrast to Strickland, Professor Mourou received the news well before lunch, during his morning swim. The call was unexpected, Mourou thought that their 33 year old breakthrough had been forgotten in the hectic field that is physics.

Since that day, there has been an intense chain of events culminating with a week spent in Sweden during which they took part in the Nobel banquet, a dinner at the Stockholm Palace as well as the traditional Nobel lectures. Both guests are tired, but at the same time buzzing from what they describe as an incredible week. Strickland maintains that even though the lack of sleep is evident, she’s enjoying every moment. Mourou agrees, emphasizing a need to digest the past week in order to fully appreciate the experience.

Being at the front of a competitive field like physics is both a challenging and time consuming feat. The guests cites passion as a main source of motivation. With passion, you don’t pay attention to effort nor time spent, Mourou claims. The professors have always felt a passion for physics, and they’ve approached research with a playful mentality from the start. The end goal was never to receive the Nobel Prize, their research was powered by the pure enjoyment of sciences. They now return to their workplaces as Nobel laureates but neither can imagine how their work will be affected by this achievement.

The balance between research, social life and health is also key to being successful, according to both guests. For example, Strickland claims to be the herd who rounds up the family around the holidays whilst Mourou is an avid exerciser, working out three to four times a week. Strickland also describes herself as a part time luddite, avoiding her phone as much as possible.

The technique, by which they were awarded the Nobel Prize, started out as one of the many ideas Mourou explored in his lab. At that time, Strickland continued the work which led to the now prized laser pulses. Now, almost 40 years later the technique has a multitude of possible applications ranging from climate mitigation to reduction of space debris. The laser has already been successfully applied to eye surgery because of the precise beam that leaves no collateral damage. The professors are themselves not all that absorbed by the business opportunities, their focus falls mainly on research and scientific advancements.

That science is a key drive for development in our society is undeniable, yet the guests experience that the stature of science in the western world has declined due to it being taken for granted. This phenomenon becomes at most visible when one visits Asia where science still has a high status. There are also many academic graduates amongst the politically active, something Mourou believes results in better decision making.

As usual the evening is concluded with a questions and answers session where the audience is invited in to the conversation.

Some recurring subjects are linked to what one could call the scientific equivalent to writers block and the frustration that comes from a stand-still caused by a seemingly unsolvable problem. The advices offered by the professors are earnest and somewhat romantic. According to them, you have got to love the process of solving the mystery surrounding the problem. Furthermore, physics is a team sport where you tackle challenges together with your team in order to reach a solution. Strickland adds that it helps having multiple projects in the works at the same time in order to keep working through these mental blockades.

As per tradition, the evening is concluded with the visiting guests naming a dream guest, someone they would like to visit Studentafton. Professor Gérard Mourou springs for French President Emmanuel Macron whilst Professor Donna Strickland would like to add German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the mix. Moderator Catarina Rolfsdotter-Jansson finishes up by wishing that Michelle Obama would pay a visit to Lund.

This afton is also available in podcast form.

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