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In Memoriam: Arthur Ashkin, 1922-2020

Sep 21, 2020

Arthur Ashkin, Nobel Laureate and OSA Honorary Member, known for his pioneering work to create optical tweezers, has passed away at the age of 98. Many considered Ashkin the father of laser radiation pressure. His work in the area of optical trapping and manipulation of small dielectric particles using optical gradient forces would become the foundation for the future of physics research in ultracold and trapped atoms. Ashkin achieved a number of “firsts.” He was the first to observe optical gradient forces on atoms, the first to perform laser cooling of atoms known as “optical molasses,” and the first to observe optical trapping of atoms.

Arthur Ashkin was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1922, to a family of Ukrainian-Jewish background. His parents, Isadore and Anna Ashkin, were originally from Odessa and Galicia (now Ukraine) and immigrated to the United States. Ashkin’s father became a U.S. citizen and established a dental laboratory in Manhattan, New York. Ashkin studied physics at Columbia College and received a B.A. in physics in 1947 and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Cornell University in 1952.

Ashkin worked at the Columbia Radiation Lab from 1942 to 1945 while in the Army and at AT&T Bell Laboratories from 1952 to 1991. At Bell Labs, Ashkin researched microwaves, nonlinear optics, and laser trapping. With colleagues he made the first observation of continuous wave (cw) laser harmonic generation, cw parametric amplification, discovered the photorefractive effect, and initiated the field of nonlinear optics in optical fibers. Ashkin extended this work to the trapping and manipulation of living material such as bacteria, viruses, and cells. The laser technique for holding material in place became known as “optical tweezers.” Using this approach, Ashkin explored the interior of a cell, manipulating its inner structures, and laying the foundation for new ways to understand normal and diseased states in the human body. The ability to cool and trap atoms has led to spectacular advances in basic science, such as the creation of Bose-Einstein condensates in atomic vapor.

Ashkin’s pioneering work in optical trapping would result in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018. Ashkin was awarded half of the prize while the other half was shared between Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland. Ashkin was the author of Optical Trapping and Manipulation of Neutral Particles Using Lasers, and held 47 patents.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, awards and honors recognizing his scientific contributions included election to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, OSA’s Frederick Ives Medal/Jarus W. Quinn Endowment (1998), Charles Hard Townes Award (1988), APS’s Joseph F. Keithley Award For Advances in Measurement Science (2003), the Rank Prize in Opto-Electronics (1993), the IEEE Photonics Society’s Quantum Electronics Award (1987), and the Harvey Prize for physics (2004). He was named an OSA Fellow in 1983, and was also a Fellow of the APS, IEEE and AAAS. In 2009, he was named an Honorary Member of the Optical Society for his pioneering work on optical trapping and the development of optical tweezers.

Ashkin was a devoted husband to his wife, Aline, who he met while studying at Cornell University. They would be happily married for more than 60 years and raise three children and five grandchildren. He was a mentor, collaborator, and friend to many within the scientific community and will be deeply missed.  His colleague, John Bjorkholm noted “Art was an outstanding scientist and a gentleman in the finest sense of the words. He was an original thinker and demonstrated exceptional creativity throughout his career. He was a humble person, not one to take credit when credit wasn't due. As a result, he was highly trusted by his colleagues. No one ever had any qualms about discussing their hottest ideas with Art. Quite simply, he was a great man.”

OSA and the scientific community mourns the loss of Arthur Ashkin.


The OSA community mourns the passing of Nobel Laureate and OSA Honorary Member Arthur Ashkin and OSA members provided the following remembrances. If you wish to add a remembrance, please contact


I remember Art Ashkin fondly as a leader and mentor from my 4 years at Bell Laboratories in Holmdel. Art was the very first manager that I had in my career and far and away the most inspiring. He was always willing to provide advice and counsel to a new staff member fresh out of graduate school.

Art was a magician as an experimentalist and he had a wonderful bag of tricks that he willingly shared with his co-workers.   I remember that he had a novel type of tunable attenuator based on wire grids that worked by diffraction – the attenuated zero order beam had no angular deviation.   My colleague Dave Bloom made a high-power tolerant version with gratings etched into fused silica and I used them to make a servo control mechanism for phase matching of nonlinear optical crystals.

Much later in life, when he was well past 90, Art was still actively pursuing research on optical concentrators for solar power generation.  I had the privilege of interacting with him to discuss some of his ideas and I marveled at his energy and enthusiasm for this work.  He was still a young man in mind and spirit!

Gary C. Bjorklund
1998 OSA President
Bjorklund Enterprises


Art's powers of observation brought a powerful new optical technique forward that has a wealth of applications.   I was fortunate enough to partake of Art's expansive knowledge, interesting perspectives, and kind humor at the lunch table during my summer internship at Holmdel.

Ursula Gibson
2019 OSA President
Norwegian University of Science and Technology


I am so sorry to hear this very sad news. Art was a great optics pioneer with a truly huge range of wonderful accomplishments. His work on laser cooling and optical tweezers has transformed science and technology. So pleased the Nobel committee recognised his outstanding excellence eventually!

Sir Peter Knight FRS
2004 OSA President
The Kavli Royal Society International Centre, Imperial College London


This is indeed sad news.  I had not yet had the privilege of meeting Art when I heard that we would share the Nobel prize in 2018. I had to call him to discuss the banquet speech and he had me on the phone for an hour. He had me laughing when he kept telling me “You know why I am the oldest living Nobel prize winner – because I just don’t die”.  I met Bob Wilson in the summer of 2019 and when he heard that I hadn’t yet met Art, he invited Doug and me to his home the next time we were in the NYC area and invited Art and Aline. Again, Art had the whole table laughing with his stories.

He was such a character along with being a great scientist.

I am so grateful that I got to meet him.

Donna Strickland
2013 OSA President
University of Waterloo


I only have fond memories of Art Ashkin during my years at Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ. Art's prowess in optical physics was matched by his kindness and thoughtfulness. I recall needing a Krypton flash lamp for my Quantronix Nd:YAG laser and my old friend and colleague Roger Stolen told me that Art (Roger's Department Head) had a similar laser. So, I went up to see Art and Joe Dziedzic, hoping for a spare flash lamp. Art was so excited and gave me a grand tour of his lab and his wonderful optical tweezers experiment, trapping and moving bacteria with his Nd:YAG laser. As a busy Department Head, Art took the time to give me a detailed tour of his lab with Joe looking on.

Art was a remarkable physicist and person who will be missed by many.

Anthony M. Johnson
2002 OSA President
University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)


I’m very saddened to hear this news. Art was one of the people I met in my first days at Bell Labs in 1981 in Holmdel, in Herwig Kogelnik’s Laboratory. The description of Art is right on the money:  He was truly a friend and mentor to many of us.

Philip H. Bucksbaum
2014 OSA President
Stanford University


That’s a very big loss. I met Art a few times. We will all miss him.

Eric Mazur
2017 OSA President
Harvard University


Awards & Distinctions

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