Laser beams . . . but not as we know them


AN IRISH SCIENTIST has been tripping the light fantastic with her groundbreaking research into a new kind of laser light that could transform the conduct of research.

This week, after a day-long adjudication process that included a personal interview conducted over the internet, an international panel of five judges named Murnane the winner of the 2011 RDS Irish TimesBoyle Medal for Scientific Excellence. She will receive the Boyle Medal and €20,000 at a ceremony at the RDS next month.

The judges praised her work, saying that her super-fast laser systems represented outstanding research that would have a major impact on research activity in other disciplines. She is only the second woman to receive this important award, with the last win by a woman 50 years ago.

“I am deeply grateful to be honoured with this award,” Murnane said. “I am certain that I would not be where I am today without the love for learning instilled through the strong education I received in Ireland through my primary, secondary and university years. It makes it even more significant for me to learn that I am only the second female laureate in the medal’s history, following the footsteps of another woman who fell in love with science.”

Murnane is originally from Co Limerick and attended University College Cork, completing a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in science before getting her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1989.

Since then she has conducted research into a range of laser systems and has developed some of the fastest lasers in the world, as well as table-top laser that uses X-rays instead of coloured light to project a beam, something that could be used to image atoms or study a virus.

Murnane has won awards and fellowships throughout her career and was selected as a member of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2004. She was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006, before joining the President’s Committee for the US National Medal of Science in 2010. She has also received distinctions from her University College Cork.

Murnane’s early work at Berkeley showed it was possible to produce incredibly short bursts of laser light, lasting no more than 10 trillionths of a second each. She designed and developed the first laser able to produce such short bursts of light, and her design is still used in many areas of science. Her accomplishment earned her a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” in 2000.

The RDS Irish TimesBoyle Medal for Scientific Excellence is Ireland’s premier prize for scientific endeavour. It is awarded every other year, alternating between a researcher of any nationality who conducts their research in Ireland, North or South, and then an Irish-born researcher who is living and working abroad. In both cases the laureate receives a specially designed bronze medal and €20,000.

The medal is named after one of Ireland’s greatest scientists, Sir Robert Boyle, often referred to as the father of modern chemistry. Born in Lismore, Co Waterford, he was a pioneer in developing the scientific method for experimental research, and is also known for the gas-pressure laws that that carry his name.

Following external peer review of the dozens of applications for the 2011 Boyle Medal, a national panel chaired by the former RDS president and emeritus professor Dervilla Donnelly selected five finalists. The finalists in turn were interviewed over the internet by an international judging panel made up of international peers, chaired by Prof Fulvio Esposito of the University of Camerino, Italy.

There were five scientific peers voting on this international panel: Alexander Borst, professor of neuroscience and director of the Max-Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Munich; Sir John Enderby CBE FRS, HO Wills professor of physics, emeritus at the University of Bristol; Mary Fowler, professor of geophysics and dean of science at Royal Holloway, University of London; Dr Peter Goodfellow FRS, a human-geneticist who was former professor of genetics and head of department at Cambridge, and who worked on staff and as a consultant for a pharmaceutical company; and Sir John Pendry FRS, professor of theoretical solid-state physics at Imperial College London. Prof Dervilla Donnelly was a nonvoting member of the judging panel.

The judges agreed that this year’s selection was particularly difficult given the quality of the five finalists, any one of whom could have been named laureate. The judges also commented on the depth and breadth of the research being presented. The outstanding finalists spoke well of the general quality of Irish science in the 21st century, they said.

The Boyle Medal was introduced by the RDS in 1899, and in its centenary year The Irish Timesjoined the RDS in presenting the distinction, which is based on achieving excellence in science. It celebrates the work of Irish scientists and highlights important work that has had an international impact on the conduct of research.

Murnane will be presented with her Boyle Medal and cash prize in November at the RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin. She will also deliver a free public address describing her research work on laser technology at the RDS Concert Hall.

X-ray vision Developing ever faster laser systems

The blink of an eye or a flash of lightening is staggeringly slow compared to the bursts of light produced by the lasers designed by the winner of the 2011 RDS Irish TimesBoyle Medal for Scientific Excellence. Light flashes that come from the lasers Prof Margaret Murnane puts together are measured in the trillionths of a second.

Murnane has worked on laser design since the early 1990s, with her earliest work being the subject of her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. She designed the first laser able to pulse in the range of the low trillionths of a second (10 “femtoseconds”) and continues to shorten the length of pulse delivered by her lasers.

The international panel of judges who selected her as this year’s Boyle Laureate highlighted the fact that while Murnane was working in basic science to develop her systems, the application of her discoveries had the potential to spread into virtually all scientific and also medical disciplines. Super-fast pulsed lasers almost halt time, allowing a freeze-frame view of the world. This is fast enough to watch chemical reactions as they take place or observe biological functions as they evolve. But Murnane has also produced a different kind of laser, one that uses beams of X-rays rather than visible light to make these fast-pulsed observations.

The scientific world already has X-ray lasers, but when originally developed they were very expensive and also cumbersome. Murnane developed a “tabletop” X-ray laser, a small, cheap and easy-to-use version that allows the power of X-ray laser light to be exploited.

These laser light beams are “coherent” like any form of laser light, but retain the penetrative power of X-rays and can be pulsed at very fast rates. This makes them ideal for “seeing” the tiny structures being developed by scientists working in nanotechnology or study surfaces being prepared by materials scientists.

For more see