Arthur Ashkin, a renowned physicist and winner of a 2018 Nobel Prize for inventing a way to harness the power of light to contain microscopic objects for meticulous study — called optical tweezers but known as a “tractor beam” — died on Sept. 21 while at home in Rumson, New Jersey.
He was 98 years old. His daughter, named Judith Herscu, confirmed his death to the world on Monday, according to an initial report from The New York Times.
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Arthur Ashkin, ‘tractor beam’ laser inventor, dies at 98
The “tractor beam” — or optical traps, technically — use pressure from an intensely focused laser beam to manipulate microscopic objects for meticulous inspection and study. This includes living organisms like bacteria and viruses.
When Ashkin won the Nobel prize, the committee wrote he’d “invented optical tweezers that grab particles, atoms, molecules, and living cells with their laser beam fingers,” the Timesreports.
‘Tractor Beam’ laser pulls, traps particles into focal point
This ability to trap biological matter saw groundbreaking practical applications through research, in addition to a deeper scientific grasp of how the basic building blocks of life behave — including DNA and other common biological systems.
At present, optical tweezers are widely produced and sold to researchers. Ashkin’s “tractor beam” is made using a shining laser — which is a beam of monochromatic light — through a very small magnifying lens. The lens then focalizes the laser, drawing particles toward and trapping them within the focal point, where they can’t move up, down, forward, or backward, reports the Times.
Arthur Askhin’s ‘tractor beam’ feels like ‘Star Trek’
The “tractor beam” metaphor stemmed from Steven M. Block — professor of biology and applied physics at Stanford University — who likened Ashkin’s discovery to something from “Star Trek” or “Star Wars,” describing them as “the closest thing to a tractor beam that humans have ever produced,” the Times reports.
As technology advances at an increasing pace, it’s tempting to view human advancement as a general trend on global timelines. But we should remember that — except for the advent of AI — every new piece of technology or scientific achievement is the work of passionate minds who dared to bring something only seen in sci-fi hits into the real world.