When you listen to Wilson Sibbett, Professor in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, discuss his "eureka" moments in laser science, you would think he was a soothsayer and not one of the foremost physicists in the world.
"I sometimes remark that a research scientist might expect to have one or two eureka moments [in his/her career]," he discloses, "[but] when you describe such moments to younger researchers it's important to point out that there are still many more facets to explore within a particular topic area. The reality is, of course, that following each discovery [in science] new opportunities open up through which we can gain fresh insights into the world of cutting-edge technology." Sibbett foretells that students should know that their research today can lead to better comprehension of the underlying elements of fundamental and applied physics for tomorrow. "There are still many, many things that await discovery and subsequent exploitation."
He should know. Sibbett has been at the forefront of discovery in optical science for decades and has had more than his share of eureka moments. Considered an innovator in ultrashort-pulse lasers and related diagnostic techniques, he designed and built streak cameras that operate like oscilloscopes in the picosecond (10-12 s) and sub-picosecond timescales. In addition, Sibbett and two research colleagues first demonstrated the Kerr-lens mode-locking technique in a titanium-sapphire laser. In a nutshell, Kerr-lens mode locking provides a means for producing femtosecond (10-18 s) laser pulses by conveniently exploiting a nonlinear optical effect in the laser crystal itself. This "very practical, simple laser", describes Sibbett, took ultrashort-pulse lasers into a new realm of user-compatibility such that femto-science and femto-technology became everyday realities.
Sibbett is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the UK and a Rumford Medal Recipient, given by the Royal Society for outstanding contributions in optics. Previous recipients include Ernest Rutherford and Anders Jonas Ångström. He was also awarded the prestigious Rank Prize for his work in ultrafast laser science and notably for Kerr-lens mode locking.
He is ecstatic about the potential for lasers now and in the future. His research group at St. Andrews, dubbed the "W-Squad", concentrates its current research activities in deploying a range of laser-based techniques in the photobiology sector as well as working on ultrafast communication technology and material sciences. Right now, life scientists use lasers to examine cells and other biological systems. "We collaborate with biologists to open up new avenues and disciplines, and try to devise new methodologies in interdisciplinary research," he says. "Indeed, as the practicality of our lasers and light sources are improved, we can begin to address some quite fundamental and important aspects of disease processes." In fact, "when you look at the world of photobiology or 'biophotonics' as it is often called nowadays, light and especially the tailored outputs from state-of-the-art ultrafast lasers are giving rise to the possibility of introducing new and exciting therapies that can be taken up by clinicians," he predicts.He recognizes their growing application in Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology, and the generation of relatively compact sources of coherent X-rays where these can ultimately offer more precise and clear images at lower exposure levels. Furthermore, as the field of attosecond science grows, which occurs at 1 quintillionth of a second and is only accessible through refined femtosecond lasers, Sibbett acknowledges that new worlds will be available for discovery. As we begin to better understand how electrons move within materials, the pioneer and oracle professes, we will witness "aspects of fundamental of physics that have not previously been subjected to in-depth interrogation."