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University of Ottawa prof named as possible Nobel Prize winner

National Research Council scientist Paul Corkum had a big hand in developing the attosecond laser.

Robert Lacombe/University of Ottawa

A National Research Council of Canada physicist whose contributions have opened the possibility of studying how molecules change and interact in real time has made the annual list of scientists deemed most likely to win a Nobel Prize.

Paul Corkum, also a professor at the University of Ottawa, was named along with Ferenc Krausz of the Max Planck Institute in Garching, Germany, as a probable winner of the physics prize. Both did crucial work toward developing attosecond lasers – lasers that pulse so fast they can be used to measure phenomena that take place over billionths of a billionth of a second, including the movements of individual electrons within atoms and molecules.

Seventeen other researchers and scholars were also listed as possible winners of the Nobel in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine and economic sciences.

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"We name more people than can actually win because that is also the reality. … There are always going to be uncrowned peers of the Nobel laureates," said David Pendlebury, a citation analyst with the media and data company Thomson Reuters, which puts out its Nobel forecast each year. (The ownership of Thomson Reuters includes the owners of The Globe and Mail.)

The forecast is unrelated to the deliberations of the Swedish and Norwegian committees that bestow Nobel prizes – coming up in two weeks. The forecast is based mainly on citations of published scientific literature, but has proved a reasonable predictor of future Nobel fame, having forecast 37 Nobel winners since the list began in 2002. The winners need not get their Nobel in the same year that they are named to the list. Last year, Steve Scherer, a genetics researcher at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, was named a likely winner of a Nobel and remains a strong contender.

"It's quite a compliment," Prof. Corkum said in an interview about his inclusion on this year's list. A Nobel Prize for Prof. Corkum would also come at an interesting moment for the National Research Council, which has been retooled by the federal Conservative government to focus on helping companies with their market-driven research needs.

Mr. Pendlebury said that the point of the forecast is to highlight the most influential work in science, whether or not it's recognized with a Nobel. On that score, Prof. Corkum is no slouch. His 1993 paper in the journal Physical Review Letters, which paved the way for the attosecond laser, has been cited more than 3,000 times. Only about 1,500 of the 60 million scientific papers published since 1900 have reached that mark.

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