Lehigh alumni Paul Corkum, ‘67G, ‘72 Ph.D., was recently named a co-recipient of the Wolf Prize in physics. Corkum was awarded for his work with ultrafast laser science and attoseconds.
The Wolf Prize is awarded to scientists and artists from around the world for their achievements “in the interest of mankind and friendly relations amongst peoples.” The prize in each field consists of a certificate and an award of $100,000.
Corkum began his studies in Nova Scotia, Canada, at Acadia University where he received his bachelor’s of science degree. After graduating, Corkum discovered Lehigh and made his way to Bethlehem where he continued his studies.
Corkum spent eight years in Bethlehem studying and researching in Lehigh’s community. His true scientific breakthroughs, however, appeared much later in his career.
After years of working as a physicist, Corkum said he began to take more of an interest in high intensity light interacting with materials, specifically gas. Many physicists have studied plasma in the physics realm but often did not focus on the detailed inner workings of atoms and molecules themselves.
Corkum, on the other hand, said he wanted to study this area. His big idea boils down to the concept of recollision — when an electron comes out and goes back into the atom from which it came. This allows for physicists to then study the atom and its fundamental properties.
“Physics has very few simple ideas and is made seemingly more complicated as it maps onto mathematics (but) it is very useful and allows us to make predictions as you would not otherwise be able to do,” Corkum said.
His studies at Lehigh played a large role in furthering his career and nurturing his love for physics. Through his work, Corkum said he gains a deeper understanding of a concept that hadn’t been fully studied or understood before.
Michael Stavola, a Sherman Fairchild professor in the Physics Department, said he recently met Corkum and learned about his path to receiving the Wolf Prize.
“You can never guess where your Lehigh education will take you,” Stavola said. “Corkum’s example shows that truly remarkable achievements are possible.”
Stavola said he feels confident that any Lehigh student can achieve great things with the right work ethic, and Corkum serves as proof of that.
Jack Lambert, ‘25, is studying physics and said he felt inspired by Corkum’s work.
“It’s amazing to know that working with the professors and receiving the education we get at Lehigh might lead any one of us to do great things, and who knows what everyone from my own graduating class will do,” Lambert said.
Lambert said it is important to recognize that during Corkum’s life, he spent years studying and researching physics but it was not until later in his career that he made this breakthrough, showing that someone can achieve something at any age.