IOP awards for 2018 include Isaac Newton Medal and Prize for Paul Corkum

11 July 2018

Canadian physicist Professor Paul Corkum has been awarded the IOP’s Isaac Newton Medal and Prize – its highest accolade and one of 22 IOP awards to physicists announced today.

IOP awards for 2018 include Isaac Newton Medal and Prize for Paul Corkum
©National Research Council Canada


Professor Corkum, a physicist at the University of Ottawa and the National Research Council of Canada, was awarded the prize for his outstanding contributions to experimental physics and to attosecond science “from the femtosecond scale of the motion of atoms within molecules, to the ultimate attosecond scale of the motion of electrons within atoms – and for pioneering work which has led to the first-ever experimental image of a molecular orbital and the first-ever space–time image of an attosecond pulse”.

An attosecond is 10−18 seconds, and attosecond techniques can “freeze the motion of electrons within atoms and molecules, observe quantum mechanical orbitals, and follow chemical reactions”, the IOP’s citation for his award says.

His groundbreaking work includes using an intense laser field to remove part of an electron from a molecule and then interfering it with its alter ego that remains in the molecule. This allows the imaging of the structure of molecules using the recolliding electron, permitting the observation of chemical reactions as they occur and the rearrangement of electrons on the attosecond time-scale.

He has an outstanding list of publications in leading journals such as Nature and Science and he has won numerous awards including the Royal Medal of the Royal Society. He said of winning the Isaac Newton Medal and Prize: “It was with Newton’s laws of motion and of gravity that I began to learn the tools of my profession in high school. My most famous papers introduced the theory of attosecond pulse generation. Newton’s laws of motion are at the very heart of this model and the edifice of attosecond science rests on Newton’s laws, therefore it is the highest possible honour for me to receive the Isaac Newton Prize.”

Early in his career he moved from being a theoretical physicist into research that involved experimental work including the use of lasers. He explains: “I was looking for a job when I completed my PhD studies and I was offered one in an experimental lab. But it is one thing for me to be willing to take a position as a post-doctoral fellow in an experimental lab, and yet another to be considered a viable candidate. The latter I owe to car repair. By the time I had completed my PhD I had completely rebuilt the engine of my car. My mechanical ability impressed my wife, who was amazed that her relatively new husband had such skills, while my prospective employer was impressed enough to hire me.”

IOP awards for 2018 include Isaac Newton Medal and Prize for Paul Corkum

Asked how he felt about being the first Canadian citizen to receive the award, Professor Corkum said: “It is a wonderful time for science in Canada. Canada has many great scientists of the calibre to be awarded the Isaac Newton Prize and while I may be the first Canadian scientist to receive the honour, I will not be the last.”

Currently he is both an experimentalist and a theorist, and he explains some of the work for which he was awarded the Isaac Newton Medal and Prize in a Q&A on the IOP’s blog. He will also be giving the Isaac Newton Lecture in London at a date to be confirmed.

The Isaac Newton Medal attracts a prize of £1000 and is the only one of the IOP’s awards that is open to an international field. The other 21 medals for whom winners are announced today include six Gold, 10 Silver Subject and five Bronze Early Career medals.

The Gold medals awarded were the Paul Dirac Medal and Prize to Professor John Chalker of the University of Oxford; the Katharine Burr Blodgett Medal and Prize to Dr Michael Begg and Dr James Rammage of Tesla Engineering Ltd; the Michael Faraday Medal and Prize to Professor Jenny Thomas of University College London; the Lawrence Bragg Medal and Prize to Professor Bobby Acharya of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics and King’s College London; the Richard Glazebrook Medal and Prize to Professor Michele Dougherty of Imperial College London; and the William Thomson, Lord Kelvin Medal and Prize to Dr Helen Czerski of University College London.

Details about these and all of the other awards winners, including photos and citations, are available on the IOP’s website.

IOP awards for 2018 include Isaac Newton Medal and Prize for Paul Corkum

Following a review in 2015, the Institute sought to better reflect the breadth of endeavour across physics education, outreach, research and application in its awards by increasing its portfolio to include five new medals in 2016 and encouraging a more diverse range of nominations.

This year 23 people will receive recognition in the 22 IOP awards(as two people jointly won the Katharine Burr Blodgett Medal and Prize). Out of these, 10 are women (44%) and out of a total of 142 nominations for this year’s awards, 25% were for female physicists (seven, 13 and 16 for the Gold, Silver Subject and Bronze Early Career medals respectively). Prior to the 2015 review, the highest proportion of female nominations had been 12.7% (the figure in 2006).

Six of the IOP’s group committees submitted a nomination this year. Individuals or teams working at 57 unique institutions were nominated for a 2018 award, compared to 84 in 2017, 54 in 2016 and 34 in 2015. There were 21 nominations for contributions to the organisation or application of physics in an industrial or commercial context, compared to 22 in 2017, 25 in 2016 and nine in 2015.

Commenting on the 2018 awards, the IOP’s President, Professor Dame Julia Higgins, said:“It is a pleasure for me to recognise and celebrate today exceptional physics by exceptional individuals.

“This is how the IOP – representing the whole physics community – honours those who produce the very best work. And it is this work that directly contributes to our economy and to our everyday lives and towards tackling some of the biggest challenges we face in society.

“I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to all our winners.”

All of the award winners will be celebrated at the IOP’s Awards Dinner in London in November and the call for nominations for the 2019 awards will open in November after that event.

IOP awards for 2018 include Isaac Newton Medal and Prize for Paul Corkum

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