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FEATURE PROFILE PORTFOLIO SPECIAL REPORT Thomas Ebbesen Shedding Light on Light BY LOUISE MUSSAT Award. Last September, the physical chemist Thomas Ebbesen saw his work honored when he received the 2014 Kavli Prize, the highest award in nanoscience. IN DEPTH T rying to anticipate discoveries doesn’t make sense: genuine findings are always accidental in the course of fundamental research,” muses Thomas Ebbesen. This French-Norwegian scientist, today the director of the University of Strasbourg Institute for Advanced Study (USIAS), speaks from experience. In September 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Kavli Prize in Nanoscience for his fortuitous discovery of hitherto unsuspected properties of light. Yet before the lucky day in 1989 that was to lead to this breakthrough, Ebbesen’s life and career had already taken him around the world. He grew up in Norway, the son of an artist and a Royal Norwegian Air Force officer. In 1964, his father was transferred to the Norwegian delegation to NATO, and the family moved to Paris. Except for an 18-month stay in Brussels, he lived there until 1972, when he obtained his baccalaureate in math and physics. After a year traveling the world on board a Norwegian freighter to “take a breather,” he had a choice between several US universities to pursue his studies, and opted for Oberlin College (Ohio). “This was the best choice I ever made,” Ebbesen says. With good reason: it was there that he developed a passion for physical chemistry, gave free rein to his penchant for art—in particular by setting up a photography cooperative—and met his future wife, the Japanese pianist Masako Hayashi, with whom he still shares his life. After graduating from Oberlin, writing his doctoral thesis on artificial photosynthesis at Pierre-et-Marie-Curie 24 CNRS INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE University (Paris), and carrying out post-doctoral research at Notre Dame Radiation Laboratory (Indiana, US), his career took him to the University of Tsukuba (Japan). There, he was soon recruited by the NEC Corporation, which was looking for young talents for its fundamental research laboratory. “Working conditions were extraordinary,” Ebbesen joyfully recalls. “We benefited from the considerable financial resources of the private sector, but also enjoyed a great deal of freedom, as if we were in a public institution. We could do all the research we wanted.” Unfailing perseverance One day in 1989, he came across an article by physicist and future Nobel Laureate (2012) Serge Haroche, describing cavity quantum electrodynamics. Ebbesen’s “childlike curiosity,” as his wife puts it, prompted him to carry out an experiment on the subject. To do so, he asked a colleague to make nanoscale test tubes, in other words, microscopic metal plates pierced by an array of regularly-spaced cylindrical holes, each 300 nanometers in diameter, all assembled on a glass plate. To Ebbesen’s surprise, light shone on the plate traveled right through it. How was this possible, with holes smaller than the wavelength of visible light? The light waves, whose wavelengths range from 400 to 700 nanometers (nm) between violet and red, should not have been able to efficiently cross the 300 nm-diameter holes. Dumbfounded, Ebbesen and his colleagues repeated the experiment time


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