Nobel Prize in Physics 2018 – New Advancements in Laser Technology

This blog post is part of a series of articles on the scientific research that led to this year’s Nobel Prizes. The official Nobel Prize Award Ceremony will take place in Stockholm on 10 December 2018.


This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded one half to Arthur Ashkin for his research on optical tweezers that led to new insights into biophysics and cell biology, and one half jointly to Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou for their research on new methods to create intense laser pulses that have changed manufacturing and medical procedures.

The prize is the latest in a series of awards to recognise developments in laser technology that demonstrate how lasers continue to be the wave of the future. Lasers were first developed in 1960, and they have since revolutionised scientific instruments, medical procedures, and manufacturing, among many other applications. Here’s how the two advances recognised by the 2018 Nobel Prize came to be and how they are used today.

Arthur Ashkin, Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou, 2018 Nobel Laureates in Physics, © Peter Badge/typos 1 in coop. with Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Trapped Particles

Lasers generate an intense, narrow beam of single-colour light with waves aligned in direction, frequency, and phase. Light particles, called photons, travel inside those waves, and generate optical forces when they hit an object and scatter.

In 1970, Arthur Ashkin, one of this year’s physics laureates, used those forces to pull a microparticle into a laser beam and trap it inside. Eventually, he also suspended a virus and a living cell. His technique, called ‘optical tweezers’, has since been key to studying the kinetics and mechanics of cellular motors and components.

Here’s how optical tweezers work:

When Ashkin first suspended a micron-sized particle inside a laser beam, he noticed that the particle was drawn into the center of the beam, where the intensity was the greatest. He realised that two types of optical forces kept the particle trapped in the beam. The forward motion of photons pushed the particle in the direction of the laser light. This radiation pressure was strong enough to levitate microparticles inside a vertical laser beam.

A second force, the one that drove the particle toward the center of the beam, also traps it inside the beam. This gradient force results from the laser’s intensity being weaker on the edges of the beam and strongest in the center. Focusing the beam with a lens generates a very steep intensity gradient, so that the gradient force becomes stronger than the one pushing the particles forward in the beam. Once Ashkin and his colleagues added a lens to their optical tweezers, they trapped particles 10 µm to 25 nm in diameter in water.

While experimenting with trapping different kinds of particles, Ashkin realised he could trap a virus or a bacterial cell. He changed the system to use an infrared laser, instead of a green one, and then he could even trap living cells. Because of Ashkin’s work on biological systems, optical tweezers are now commonly used in biophysics and cell biology. Groundbreaking biophysical experiments with optical tweezers include attaching a protein called ‘kinesin’ to an optically trapped bead. Inside cells, kinesin carries molecular cargo throughout cells by walking along filaments called microtubules. Using optical tweezers, researchers made the first measurements of the length of each of kinesin’s steps.

Intensity boost

Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou shared the other half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for their method of boosting the intensity of ultra-short laser pulses in a way that did not melt the laser components. Their approach has led to industrial and medical applications of lasers, including precision manufacturing and eye surgery.

During the first 25 years of laser development, researchers figured out how to create ultra-short pulses of laser light, but the intensity of these pulses was limited. They could only amplify nanojoules of energy in each pulse to the millijoule level because more intense pulses damaged the amplifying material and laser components.

One way researchers increased the pulse intensity was by widening the beam diameter to disperse its intensity. However, this required large and costly equipment that only national research institutes could host. Also, these lasers could only deliver a few pulses each day, because they needed time to cool down between shots.

In 1985, Strickland and Mourou described a method to solve this problem. Inspired by radar technology, they decided to reduce the peak power of a laser pulse by first stretching its wavelength by several orders of magnitude. Then they could amplify the wave without damaging the material. Finally, they compressed the wave to restore its original properties. Two years after demonstrating chirped pulse amplification, they altered the components of the system and amplified nanojoule pulses to joules of energy – an increase of nine orders of magnitude.

Following the development of chirped pulse amplification, researchers used it to deliver increasingly short and intense laser pulses. These pulses combined to create high powered lasers in affordable instruments. Academic researchers can now purchase tabletop lasers that deliver terawatts of power, the peak power of the large lasers once only found at research institutes. Institutes now run petawatt lasers, and at least 50 petawatt lasers are operating, under construction or being planned worldwide. The Extreme Light Infrastructure Beamlines facility, a project spearheaded by Mourou and under construction in Prague, Czech Republic, will have a 10 PW laser system.

These ultrafast, high intensity laser pulses have opened new areas of research in physics, including studying matter in the condensed phase and the dynamics of electrons inside atoms.

Intense laser pulses also have practical applications in precision manufacturing and medical procedures. Less intense pulses can heat treat a material, while more intense pulses can cut, carve or pierce it. Short, intense laser pulses are also essential for LASIK eye surgery, where doctors reshape the outer covering of a patient’s eye to correct vision problems that usually require wearing glasses or contacts.

Additional Note: Find out more about the fascinating world of Laser Technology in a Topic Cluster in our mediatheque.

Communicating with the Media: Eight Tips on How to Get Press

As a freelance journalist, I look for stories all the time. In fact, my livelihood, and more importantly my cupcake budget, depend upon scientists just like you approaching and pitching me – that is, giving me a short, condensed version of an interesting story that I could potentially write about. I love being pitched. And I especially love it when a source, their public relations (PR) representative, or the public information officer (PIO) at their institution offers me ideas over long periods of time that are exciting, have narrative teeth, present something new, give the reader a fresh perspective on a topic, and engage my audience. I welcome these pitches and look forward to them, as they serve as the foundation of a fruitful alliance.

Indeed, some of my most favourite articles that I have written (and related, stories I have shared during speeches) came from people approaching me and not the other way around. And I would venture a guess that most other journalists feel the same way – if you have a good story that could work for our readership, we want to hear from you!

But before you do go on a pitching rampage in which you text me 30 times in a week to ask if I had a chance to read your very general press release, take a gander below at some tips for how best to interact with reporters. This is relevant in any industry, sector, field, and career path; an essential aspect of contributing to and advancing in your profession is effectively and regularly communicating with the media. As professionals in any space, be in STEM or stemware, it is critical for you to develop partnerships with the press, in such a way that they look forward to hearing from you, because they know you are always thinking about value – the value that I, as a journalist, and you, as a source, craft together to provide information and inspiration to readers.

On that note, allow me to present a few tips to help you ‘get’ the press:

  1. Build a relationship. #SpoilerAlert: some of my best articles are from sources and PR pros with whom I have been working for months and even years. It is all about networking – building that win-win alliance for the long-haul. They know that not every story they pitch me will be something I can or will write about, and if they are respectful and persistent, they know that there will be other opportunities to have me write about their work in the future. Some partnerships are so good that I come back again and again to the same source or PR director to write about them and their client multiple times over multiple publications. They always give me good story ideas that are the right flavour for the pubs that I write for, and have always been extremely responsive and helpful with my story ideas. I know you want press now, and I welcome your timely pitches (see below), but more importantly is to think long-term for how we can possibly work together over extended periods of time.


  1. Get to know what I write about. Get to know what publications I write for. Get to know my style. Get to know my pitching preferences. (For example, don’t text me if we have not already inaugurated a relationship. I much prefer email reach-outs.) Get to know me. The more you know me, the better you can craft customised pitches that are more likely to get you media exposure.


  1. Show me the story. If you are pitching me, don’t just tell me “I know a great scientist”. There are many great scientists. What makes you (or your client, the great scientist) specifically so great? I am looking for a narrative, a way to tell an overarching story – perhaps of ingenuity in the face of an uphill challenge, of failure that led to success, of personal trauma that transitioned into inspiration and innovation. Walk me through the why and how this scientist is amazing and why my readers need/should know about them.


Press conference at #LINO18: Nobel Laureates in communication with journalists. Photo/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

  1. Become an essential resource. If I come to you and ask you if you know of a source in volcanology, leverage your network and see if you can find a colleague who is a volcanologist. If I inquire about hot topics in AI, and that is tangentially related to your field, certainly you can present yourself as an expert. But you could also offer me other sources with whom I can speak as well. I appreciate your assistance. And the more resourceful you are with the media, the more we will come to you.


  1. Make it easy: Help the reporter understand what the essence of the story is. Don’t just send me a press release about your paper, conference, or new product. Customise the pitch for my needs. For example, knowing that I write about career topics for scientists and engineers, you can approach me with a story idea about yourself and your career path and how you overcame certain challenges. Think stories about people, not necessarily projects or products. The humanity is what I am after, as are my readers.


  1. Understand rules of journalism. I know you want to see your quotes before they are published, but some publications have specific rules barring this. And I know you want to review the article before you see it in print or online, but my editor will kill me if I share it with you. Do you want to invite me to Paris, all-expenses-paid, to get a sense of your research institution? Know that if you fund the trip, chances are I will not be able to place an article in a mainstream publication, because of the rules barring this type of behaviour – it gives the appearance of quid pro quo, even if it is not the actual case, and creates a potential conflict of interest (COI) for me, my editor, and my publication. So before you offer me a free trip, just be aware that I won’t be able to feature you. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the issues that journalists deal with, such as the publication’s rules against sharing quotes, text, or full articles with sources. Mind you, not every publication is like this. But many, many are. So please don’t ask if you can see the article.


  1. Everything’s on the record. Many years ago, I went on a journalism fellowship with about a dozen other science and environmental reporters, photojournalists, and videographers, where we had the chance to learn about the green energy initiatives of the Native American tribal governments in the Southwestern US. As part of the fellowship, it was arranged for us to meet with a PR director who represented the oil and gas (O&G) industry for a certain state in the US. He knew we were all journalists in the room. He knew we were taking notes and recording what he said. But at the end of an hour-long conversation, essentially an interview, about the state of O&G in the state, he turned to us and stated: “this was all off the record, right?” The fellowship director’s eyes almost popped out of his head, and we all started laughing. He was a veteran PR pro and should have known the bottom line: unless you ask for something to specifically be off the record at the beginning of an interview, everything you say to a journo is on the record.


  1. Time it right. Timing is a big concern of mine as a journalist. I need to have time to properly vet, report, and write an article. The topic needs to be timely for the audiences of the publication. The timing of the pitch and the article’s publication has to be in a sweet spot, too. Time is of the essence, and yet I have had sources, PR managers, and PIOs come to me with the story idea to write about a conference, sometimes one day before the meeting begins, and sometimes, after the conference has concluded. As much as possible, please give me time to contemplate and write the story. Another aspect of timing to keep in mind is when publications actually publish stories. For breaking news, stories may go live within hours or less of you being interviewed – case in point, the Nobel Prize announcements. But then there are stories that take weeks or months to prepare. I have worked on stories that don’t get published for more than a year after the original interview. So please be patient. It is no problem to follow up with me and ask what the status is or if I know the publication date. I am happy to provide you with any info I have.

Additional Note: On 18 October 2018, Alaina G. Levine held a webinar concerning science communication for the Alumni Network members of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The webinar can be watched in the video below or on our YouTube-Channel.


Science Without Borders: New Nature Outlook Published

The new edition of Nature Outlook focuses on science in emerging economies. Illustration: Taj Francis; Copyright: Nature.

The latest issue of Nature Outlook, produced with support from Mars, Incorporated, is out! Our media partner Nature once again has published a special supplement to their scientific journal featuring the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. It focuses on empowering scientists in emerging economies and includes articles about #LINO18. Expect a profound insight into the current status of scientific research in low- and middle-income countries.

2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2018 Nobel Laureates Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018.

On Wednesday, 3 October 2018, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018 to Frances H. Arnold “for the directed evolution of enzymes”  and to George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter “for the phage display of peptides and antibodies”.

Find out more about the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry here.

2018 Nobel Prize in Physics

2018 Nobel Laureates Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland. Ilustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018.

On Tuesday, 2 October 2018, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2018 to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland for their breakthrough inventions in the field of laser physics.

Find out more about the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics here.

Den Nobelpreisen auf der Spur

Der Lindauer Wissenspfad macht ab sofort die Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertagungen, deren Geschichte und vor allem das „Nobelwissen“ für Groß und Klein sicht- und (be-)greifbar. Auf den Spuren von Nobelpreisträgern und ihrer Forschung können alle Lindauerinnen und Lindauer, aber auch Gäste aus der ganzen Welt, auf Entdeckungstour durch Lindau gehen. An insgesamt 21 Wissenspylonen lernen sie dabei mehr über wissenschaftliche Alltagsphänomene. Vielleicht kommt dabei auch der eine oder andere Nobelpreisträger um die Ecke – in Lindau immerhin durchaus denkbar…

Die Leuchtturmstele am Lindauer Hafen. Picture/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Die Leuchtturmstele am Lindauer Hafen. Picture/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings


Der Lindau Spirit für Alle

Wissen sollte immer und überall frei zur Verfügung stehen. Das gehört zum Kernanliegen von Stiftung und Kuratorium der Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertagungen, zu ihrer Mission Education. Die Idee zum Bau des Lindauer Wissenspfades ist daraus entstanden. Die Stadt Lindau hat sie bei der Umsetzung unterstützt.
Schon seit über 65 Jahren kommen in Lindau einmal im Jahr Nobelpreisträger und junge Nachwuchswissenschaftler aus der ganzen Welt zusammen, um sich auszutauschen und voneinander zu lernen. Der Lindau Spirit, von dem die Teilnehmer dabei inspiriert werden, soll jetzt auf dem Lindauer Wissenspfad für jeden und vor allem das ganze Jahr über erlebbar sein.
Der Wissenspfad besteht aus insgesamt 21 Wissenspylonen, 15 davon können auf der Lindauer Insel entdeckt werden. Auf dem Lindauer Festland und auf der Insel Mainau stehen jeweils drei Stelen zur Erkundung bereit. Auf der Karte sind die einzelnen Standorte auf der Lindauer Insel zu sehen.

Die Karte zeigt die verschiedenen Standorte der Wissenspylone, die ab sofort in Lindau entdeckt werden können. Picture/Credit: Archimedes Exhibitions GmbH

Die Karte zeigt die verschiedenen Standorte der Wissenspylonen, die ab sofort in Lindau entdeckt werden können. Picture/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings


Für jeden etwas dabei – die Wissenspylonen

Auf den unterschiedlichen Pylonen lernen kleine und große Entdecker wissenschaftliche Begebenheiten aus den Bereichen der Nobelpreisdisziplinen kennen und verstehen: es gibt Physik-, Chemie-, und Medizinpylonen, aber auch eine Friedens- und eine Literaturstele. Zwei Wissenspylonen erklären Theorien aus den Wirtschaftswissenschaften, zwei weitere Stelen erläutern, wie die Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertagungen entstanden sind und was sich hinter dem Nobelpreis verbirgt. Man muss kein Naturwissenschafts-Experte sein, um die Erklärungen auf den Pylonen zu verstehen. Der Wissenspfad richtet sich an viele unterschiedliche Menschen; die Kinderspuren auf jedem Pylon bringen das ‚Nobelwissen‘ auch den jüngsten Forschern näher.

Natürlich bekommen die Nobelpreisträger auf dem Wissenspfad einen besonderen Platz: auf den Stelen wird nicht nur ihre Forschung sicht- und erlernbar gemacht, zukünftig werden sie an der zentralen Station auch besonders geehrt: Auf dem kleinen See wird es in Lindau bald einen Steg geben, der die Namen der Nobelpreisträger verzeichnet, die schon einmal in Lindau zu Gast waren. Und das sind schon mehr als 450 Laureaten!


Virtueller Wissenspfad: Mit der App auf Entdeckungstour

In Zukunft kann man den Nobelpreisträgern auf dem Wissenspfad auch virtuell begegnen. Die App macht das möglich: an sechs verschiedenen Standorten erklären virtuelle Nobelpreisträger, wofür sie den Nobelpreis bekommen haben. Sogar ein Selfie mit Preisträgern ist möglich!
Entlang des Wissenspfads können alle ‚Wissenspfadler‘ das Erlernte in der Rallye testen und über Quizfragen knobeln. Dafür muss man allerdings vor Ort sein. Damit möglichst viele Leute den Weg nach Lindau aufnehmen und den Wissenspfad auch in echt kennen lernen, werden die virtuellen Nobelpreisträger und die Quizfragen nämlich nur am Pylonenstandort freigeschaltet.

Mit der Lindauer Wissenspfad-App kann man in der Rallye z.B. Quizfragen beantworten. Picture/Credit: preto_perola/, illustrations: eatmefeedme; editing: rh

Mit der Lindauer Wissenspfad-App kann man in der Rallye z.B. Quizfragen beantworten. Picture/Credit: preto_perola/, illustrations: eatmefeedme; editing: rh


Der Wissenspfad auf dem Sofa oder im Klassenraum

Aber auch diejenigen, die nicht nach Lindau kommen (können), haben die Möglichkeit, einen Blick auf Lindau, die Nobelpreisträger und ihre Forschung zu werfen: sie können den Wissenspfad zuhause virtuell ablaufen und die Pylonen in der App abrufen. Das können sich auch Lehrer im Unterricht zu Nutze machen.
Der Wissenspfad lädt Schulklassen aber auch explizit ein, nach Lindau zu kommen und sich auf die Spur der Nobelpreise zu machen. Vor Ort kann man deshalb auch gemeinsam einen Preis gewinnen! Interessierte Lehrer können sich gerne mit dem Kuratorium für die Tagungen der Nobelpreisträger in Lindau in Verbindung setzten und weitere Informationen und Materialien erhalten.

Schüler an einem Wissenspylon. Picture/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Schüler an einem Wissenspylon. Picture/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings


Ermöglicht wurde der Wissenspfad durch die Unterstützung der Stadt Lindau und der Prof. Otto Beisheim Stiftung.

Dan Shechtman inspires young scientists in Nepal

I, on the behalf of the Asian Science Camp Alumni Association, have hosted an event “Interactive Session with Nobel Laureate Prof.Dr. Dan Schechtman” in a collaboration with the International Quasi Crystal Conference and Embassy of Israel In Nepal on 19th September 2016, at the Hotel Soltee Crown Plaza, in Kathmandu, Nepal.


Kathmandu's Durbar Square with the magnificent Bodnath Stupa in its center (picture was taken before the horrible earthquake in 215 struck the city). Photo:

Kathmandu’s Durbar Square with the magnificent Bodnath Stupa in its center (picture was taken before the horrible earthquake in April 2015 struck the city). Photo:

The hall of Hotel Soltee Crowne Plaza was jammed on 19th September with researchers, young scientists, students of various fields, political leaders from leading parties, government representatives and policy makers to attend the talk of Prof. Dan Shechtman. He stood among a huge crowd of unknown faces, yet expressed himself with such an amiable manner. Only few people possess such a down to earth and charismatic personality like Prof. Dan Shechtman. No doubt, the Nobel Laureates’ story is a fascinating one: from his achievements and the hard work he has done to the roller coaster ride of his eventual success.  In addition, Shechtman also shared many of his ideas, gave us insights on how he thinks and much more. Only few people get the chance to meet such a great personality and the young researchers, I must say, are very lucky to get this once in a life time opportunity to meet Prof. Dan Shechtman.

Since Dan Shechtman is a professor of material sciences and a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, everyone expected him to talk about his scientific achievements and experiences. But out of the blue, he talked about another topic dear to his heart: the role of technological entrepreneurship for the development of a nation. The title of his speech was “Technological Entrepreneurship – A Key to World Peace and Prosperity”. He advocated the important role of techno-entrepreneurship in transforming developing countries like Nepal into efficient economies. He emphasized that developing entrepreneurial spirit and a well educated youth is paramount for the development of a country.


Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman with attendees of his lecture. Photo: Asian Science Camp Alumni Association

Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman with attendees of his lecture. Photo: Asian Science Camp Alumni Association

Professor Shechtman especially stressed the significance of good basic education for everyone. He listed good engineers, science education, proper government policy and anti-corruption measures as basic components that help empowering a country’s entrepreneurship. He also shared ideas and suggested some do’s and don’ts, e.g. regarding potential sources of investments and strategies for the startups. Shechtman then explained the situation in his home country Israel: “Israel is a small country with a small population and small markets. So the majority of our products are exports. If you produce products more efficiently, you can compete easily in foreign markets. When you come up with a new thing, it is innovation. When you turn your innovation into something marketable, that’s entrepreneurship.”

With his experiences at the Technion, Professor Shechtman showed the importance of science education for a nation. He further added: “Entrepreneurship does not come naturally to anyone. You have to teach it like you teach mathematics.” Shechtman illustrated his thoughts by bringing up relevant examples of the development of Israel, Taiwan and other comparable countries. Finally, the participants got a chance to ask their own question which was a dream coming true for everyone in attendance. Professor Shechtman’s speech was a real treat to all of us and many young Nepalese will take lots of inspiration from his speech.

The Story behind the Hype: Cockroach Milk

 The phone in S Ramaswamy’s office at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) has been ringing off the hook. “Normally no-one calls my office,” says the Bangalore-based researcher. Ramaswamy had just talked to a TV channel about his recent research breakthrough. As we settle down for the interview, another reporter from a global news service calls to make an appointment for an interview. The story they were interested in has been 10 years in the making—a story that began when a young undergraduate student, Nathan Coussens, observed some crystals in the gut of an unborn Pacific beetle cockroach.

Commonly found in the landscapes of Hawaii, the Pacific beetle cockroach (Diploptera punctata) is the only known species of viviparous cockroach. This means that it gives birth to living young, not eggs, and the offspring are nourished by the mother in her brood sac. Studied in laboratories for many years now, these roaches have suddenly shot to stardom as the world’s next superfood source, mere weeks after a study published by Ramaswamy and his colleagues in IUCrJ, an open-access journal published by the International Union of Crystallography.


Nymph of the Pacific Beetle Cockroach. Photo:

Nymph of the Pacific Beetle Cockroach. Photo:

In the spring of 2006, Nathan Coussens, now a Senior Research Scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), found a specimen of the Pacific beetle cockroach in the laboratory of Barbara Stay, at the University of Iowa. Stay, dubbed by colleagues as ‘Cockroach Lady’, had the largest collection of the world’s cockroaches during her time in Iowa. Coussens’ interest was piqued by the shiny crystals he saw in the gut of the cockroach. Stay had seen these crystals before. Crystals in the gut, when observed, are assumed to be crystals of urea or waste products that crystallise very readily. Coussens, however, had a hunch that these might be different. He took them to Ramaswamy, then a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Iowa, who studied crystal structures. Coussens put them in the x-ray beam and found, to everyone’s surprise, that these were proteins, not waste.

“Once we realised these were proteins, we were hooked,” said Ramaswamy, “we wanted to find out what these crystals are, understand the protein. It is actually nontrivial to get crystals grown in vivo (inside a living organism).” Naturally occurring protein crystals are rare—making proteins crystallise is usually a challenge for crystallographers—the researchers wanted to know what about the structure makes these different and understand their function at a molecular level. At 10-20 microns, the crystals were larger than the few known naturally-occurring protein crystals, but small enough to make structure determination using x-rays difficult.

When nothing is known about the structure of a protein, researchers resort to a nifty trick, one of the oldest in the book, which makes it possible to effectively use x-ray crystallography and solve the structure. One or more heavy atoms are introduced into specific sites in the crystal without disturbing its perfect repeating pattern. But the researchers were unable to incorporate heavy atoms in these crystals. Efforts at preparing the protein crystals for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), a different technique for structure determination, also failed. They even wrote a proposal to NASA, who were conducting experiments to see if protein crystals could be grown better in space, to send the cockroaches to space. “We tried a number of interesting things and did it as a fun, really curious project,” said Ramaswamy.

With Ramaswamy’s move to inStem, Bangalore, the project took a backseat. However, in early 2013, Leonard Chavas, a scientist who had learnt about the project from Ramaswamy, was eager to initiate it again. With his easy access to SOLEIL, a synchrotron facility near Paris, France, where he manages a beam line named PROXIMA1 and heads the HelioBio section, Chavas was uniquely positioned to help solve the technical challenge of determining the structure of proteins contained in the micro crystals. “I work with new x-ray sources called x-ray free electron lasers. Using these x-ray sources, it is possible to work with very difficult samples,” said Chavas.


The technique that solved the structure is called Sulphur Single-wavelength Anomalous Diffraction (S-SAD). Chavas explains, “When you have difficulties solving a structure, it is good to work with atoms that are easier to see, that are bigger. For that, you need to introduce heavy atoms into the system, but that didn’t work here. However, sulphur is already present in most, if not all, proteins known so far. So if you are able to find a way to get a good signal from the sulphur, then you can use it as a pseudo heavy atom that helps you to solve the structure.” His team built a beam line at the Photon Factory, a synchrotron in Japan, which worked at an energy that could “see” the sulphur atoms. However, that was not the only challenge.

The packing or arrangement of the molecules in the crystal was, in crystallographer speak, space group P1. This, in Chavas’ words, “is the most difficult space group for structure studies because there is no symmetry between molecules.” Before this, no structure in P1 had been solved using S-SAD. “It helped that the crystals were so good. The data was actually very nice,” said Chavas.

Sanchari Banerjee, a postdoc in Ramaswamy’s lab worked with the team to analyse the data and solve the structure. They learnt that the crystals were unusual in many ways. These crystals were not made up of one protein, but three—they are heterogeneous, not homogeneous. This was so surprising that the researchers had to double-check their results using a second technique called mass spectrometry. “We crystallographers struggle hard in the lab making homogeneous protein samples to get crystals that will diffract well, and here nature has provided us heterogeneous crystals that diffract so well that we can see the atoms they’re made of. This is extremely fascinating,” said Banerjee. 

Bound to these proteins are sugars called glycans and molecules of fat, a combination of molecules akin to milk. The protein-rich liquid food provided by the mother cockroach, the researchers realised, had crystallised in the embryos’ guts, to be always readily available to the quickly growing offspring. The researchers are now busy expressing the protein in the bacteria, E. coli, and in yeast. The scientists, curious as ever, are keener to use the versatility of yeast as a molecular toolbox to learn more about the remarkable crystals, in particular to test whether their theories about what makes them crystallise so readily are accurate.

During their investigations, the researchers estimated, among other properties of the crystal, the calorific value. They found that “a single crystal is estimated to contain more than three times the energy of an equivalent mass of dairy milk.” The potential of harvesting the crystals as a source of nutrition has triggered tremendous interest in the popular press, many of them tapping into the “ick factor” that food made from cockroaches would provoke. In the last few weeks, the number of articles, TV stories and even Youtube videos “have multiplied like roaches” jokes Ramaswamy. The team will investigate bioengineered yeast as a possible route to producing and developing energy-rich food supplements fit—and more agreeable—for human consumption. Ramaswamy hopes that this well-liked story will also inspire in its wake, popular support for open-ended, basic science. “The message that I’d like people to take away is that curiosity can make breakthrough discoveries,” he enthuses. How likely is it that someone setting out to make an energy-rich food supplement would go looking in a cockroach’s gut?


This article was originally published at

Smartphones, Energy-Efficient Lamps, and GPS: How Nobel Laureates’ Work Impacts Today’s Technology

Particle physics and cosmology make up the big topics of interest for many young scientists at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, with lectures by the pioneering researchers who won Nobel Prizes for their work in the cosmic microwave background radiation, neutrino mass, and the accelerating expansion of the universe. These fields embody the inquisitive and fundamental nature of physics as a discipline driven purely by a curiosity about what makes the world tick.

However, let’s not forget about the importance of more applied topics in physics, such as research in semiconductors, optics, medical physics, and nanotechnology. Physicists in these fields have contributed to groundbreaking developments in technology that impact not only society as a whole, but often affect our individual lives on a day-to-day basis.

Their work often teeters on the fuzzy border between science and engineering — a place Nobel Laureate Hiroshi Amano remains very familiar with. As one of the inventors of the once-elusive blue LED, Amano had a direct hand in the realization of full-color displays that grace our beloved smartphones, as well as the energy-efficient LED lighting quickly replacing incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.

“First of all, I’d like to mention that I’m not a physicist — I belong to the engineering department. So today, I’d like to emphasize the importance of not only the science but also the engineering,” said Amano, who kicked off the meeting’s Nobel Laureate lectures on Monday morning. “Maybe my field is not the major in this meeting, so I’d like to mention the importance of the minority.”



Hiroshi Amano during his lecture. Photo: J. Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Amano began his lecture by describing his poor academic performance from primary school to high school. Since it seemed to him that the only reason to study hard in Japan was to get into a good high school or university, he lacked sufficient motivation. A former professor changed this mindset by describing the purpose of engineering as a discipline that connects and supports the people. From that moment on, Amano had no trouble finding the inner drive to study hard.

Despite his title as a Professor in the Department of Engineering and Computer Science at Nagoya University in Japan, Amano won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics along with Isamu Akasaki and Shuji Nakamura for the invention of high-brightness blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs). For three decades, the creation of a commercially viable blue LED remained a slow-going and difficult endeavor for researchers despite the previous success of red and green LEDs.

“Unfortunately, all the efforts in the 1970s failed,” said Amano, citing issues with growing crystals in the material of choice for blue LEDs, gallium nitride, as well as creating p-type layers. “So many, many researchers abandoned this material and started the new material research such as zinc selenide. Only one person could not abandon this material: my supervisor, Isamu Akasaki.”

In 1985, Akasaki and Amano successfully created their own crystal growth system by using a buffer layer of low-temperature-deposited aluminum nitride that sat between the gallium nitride and sapphire substrate. After a few more tweaks involving the p-type layer, the two presented the world’s first high-brightness blue LED in 1992.

The flashy new blue LEDs could now be combined with their classic red and green counterparts to produce full-color displays for smartphones, computer screens, and televisions. Energy-efficient and long-lasting lightbulbs that emit white light use blue LEDs along with yellow phosphor, and have already started to replace incandescent and fluorescent lighting around the world. By year 2020, the total electricity consumption in Japan could drop about 7% by swapping existing lamp systems to LEDs — a savings of 1 trillion Japanese yen.

Outside of cosmology and particle physics, another fundamental field of physics lies in studying the strange and often paradoxical quantum world. Many quantum phenomena were thought to exist only in a theorist’s mind, since direct experimental observation would destroy the individual quantum systems.

However, the work of Nobel Laureate David Wineland proved otherwise. In 2012, Wineland and Serge Haroche shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their independent discovery of experimental methods that enable the measurement and manipulation of individual particles without destroying their quantum-mechanical nature. His research has enabled the creation of extremely precise atomic clocks, with more than 100-fold greater precision than the cesium-based clocks in standard use.



David Wineland

“Certainly one of the applications of precise clocks over many centuries has been in navigation, and that’s still true today,” said Wineland during his lecture on Tuesday morning. “One system we take for granted is the [Global Positioning System (GPS)].”

Signals from satellites orbiting the Earth transmit their position and current time, which are then picked up by a GPS receiver. Given that the signals travel at the speed of light, the calculated time delays between the clocks of multiple satellites and those on the ground can be used to pinpoint the GPS receiver’s location on the surface of the Earth.

“There can be errors in the clocks, so for example if the clocks are synchronized to the nanosecond, then that gives an uncertainty of about 30 centimeters,” he said.

The standard atomic clocks in satellites today use an electronic transition frequency in the microwave range as a periodic event generator or frequency reference. Earlier examples of periodic event generators include the rotation of the Earth and the swing of a pendulum.

As Group Leader of the Ion Storage Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the U.S., Wineland began working on building a better clock in 1979 when he started to do experiments with atomic ions. The group trapped beryllium ions by surrounding them with electric fields and used tuned laser pulses to put the ions in a superposition state, or a simultaneous existence of two different energy states. A single ion trapped in this way could also be used to create an optical clock, based on optical rather than microwave transitions.

An optical clock’s precision can be better than one part in 10^17 — meaning that if you started the clock at the time of the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, it would only be off by about 5 seconds.

At the end of his lecture, Wineland described using his clocks for navigation at a scale of less than one centimeter. Not only would GPS calculations become much more accurate, but such clocks could even measure the dynamics of relative locations on Earth for earthquake prediction.

Op-ed: What would the Brexit mean for Science and Research?

As the date of the referendum, June the 23rd, rapidly approaches, both the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns are publishing increasingly aggressive headlines in an attempt to sway the 10% of voters who remain undecided about whether the United Kingdom should stay in or leave the European Union [1]. The Leave campaign is aiming to persuade voters that the UK needs to “regain control” and “end the supremacy of EU law” saying that a vote to leave “is much safer than giving Brussels more power and money every year.” [2]. They argue that the UK sends £350 million every week to the EU and that it would be better if this money was spent on the UK. The Remain campaign, on the other hand, argues that EU countries invest £66 million in the UK every day, that for every £1 the UK puts into the EU we get almost £10 back in the form of jobs, trade, investment and lower prices [3]. In fact, both campaigns have been confusing the general public with conflicting claims resulting from different assumptions made when analysing data, for example in the claims that “The EU costs the average UK household as much as £9,265 a year.” (Leave campaign) and that “.. all the trade, investment, jobs and lower prices that come from our economic partnership with Europe is worth £3,000 per year to every household.” (Remain campaign) [4]. It is no wonder that voters are unsure as to what the real effects of a Brexit would be. One of the many questions that remain is: What would happen to Science and Research, both in the UK and in Europe, as a result of a Brexit?




Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not known. This is, in a very large part, because there is no certainty as to what would happen to the UK budget upon leaving the EU and what the relationship of the UK with the EU will be [5]. Nor is it clear, how the UK would change its immigration policy and whether there would be exemptions for researchers, as was the case with the new immigration rules enacted on the 6th of April this year [6]. Much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric has related to immigration [2] and therefore it is likely that if the UK was to vote to leave the EU, new immigration controls would be put into place. Exactly what these changes would be has not been outlined by the Leave campaign.

We do know a few things, however, thanks to the Science and Technology Committee’s report published in April 2016 [7], and the UNESCO science report “Towards 2030” published in November 2015 [8]. The latter concludes that a Brexit would have far-reaching consequences not only for British science, but also for European science. I will describe a few of the key points mentioned in these reports below.

The European Union is a very important centre of science worldwide, currently producing over one third of the world’s scientific output according to UNESCO data [8]. This can be partly attributed to the fact that 8% of the EU budget goes directly into Horizon 2020, the current EU framework programme for research and innovation, worth just under €80 billion from 2014 – 2020 [9]. This money is accessible to anyone within the EU, from students to established professors. Through Horizon 2020, individual researchers and groups in the UK can collaborate with researchers in over 170 countries worldwide [9], fuelling high-quality collaborative research [10]. However, this money may not become entirely inaccessible to the UK if it is no longer an EU member state, as there are several countries which currently are eligible to receive funding through Horizon 2020 as Associated Countries. If this were to become the case, it is probable that the level of influence the UK would be allowed to maintain regarding science policy decision making would decline [7] as well as the funding available to the UK [8], despite it still being expected to make a significant financial contribution to the EU.

Within the scientific community, the message is clear. In a recent poll of scientists conducted by the journal Nature, of the respondents who intended to vote in the referendum, 80%  said that they would vote to remain in the EU, and 78% said that a Brexit would harm UK science (while 9% said that it would benefit) [11]. Additionally, a group of 13 Nobel laureates recently wrote an open letter to the Telegraph newspaper, stating their support for the Remain campaign, as they believe that leaving the EU poses a “key risk” to UK science [12]. They argue that “Science thrives on permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimise barriers, and are open to free exchange and collaboration. The EU provides such an environment and scientists value it highly.” [13].

Regardless of the decision made on June the 23rd, it is likely that the UK will have lost some of its welcoming appeal to international researchers as a result of the anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been filling many of headlines over the past months. The very uncertainty of what would happen if the UK were to leave the EU is likely to be damaging to the UK economy, meaning that any estimates of savings made by leaving are likely to be inaccurate. There is no precedent for what would happen if a country was to leave the EU, therefore it is difficult to predict the relationship that the EU would have with the UK. However it is likely that, in order to dissuade other countries from pulling out, the conditions offered would be less than favourable. Whether this would be damaging to science and research remains to be seen.




[1] Financial Times Brexit Poll Tracker: []: [June 19, 2016]


[2] The Campaign – Vote Leave: []: [June 16, 2016]


[3] Britain Stronger In Europe: []: [June 16, 2016]


[4] The UK in a changing Europe: []: [June 16, 2016]


[5] Leave/Remain: The facts behind the claims: []: [June 16, 2016]


[6] Statement of Intent: changes to tier 1, tier 2 and tier 5 of the points based system; overseas domestic workers; and visitors: []: [June 19, 2016]


[7] Relationship between EU membership and UK science inquiry: []: [June 15, 2016]


[8] UNESCO Science report: []: [June 15, 2016]


[9] What is Horizon 2020?: []: [June 15, 2016]


[10] Could a ‘Brexit’ impact UK research partnerships?: [–research-partnerships]: [June 16, 2016]


[11] Scientists say ‘no’ to UK exit from Europe in Nature poll: []: [June 19, 2016]


[12] Nobel prize winners warn leaving EU poses ‘risk’ to science: [] [June 15, 2016]


[13] 13 Nobel laureates urge Britain to stay in European Union: []: [June 19, 2016]