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Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn, husband and wife physics professors and researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and JILA. They are the recipients of the 2020 Franklin Institute Awards. (Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)
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Two scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder, Professor Henry Kapteyn and Professor Margaret Murnane, a married couple and partners in physics research, have been awarded the 2020 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics by the Franklin Institute. lt is one of several awards given out yearly by the institute.

In its 196th year, the Franklin Institute continues to pay tribute to its namesake, Benjamin Franklin, by honoring the greatest minds in science.

“The Franklin Institute Awards pay tribute to America’s original scientist, Benjamin Franklin, by honoring the greatest minds in science, engineering, and industry,” said Chris Franklin, chair of the Awards Corporate Committee, in a statement. “We believe in the work the Institution does to inspire a passion for learning about science and technology.”

Professor Margret Murnane believes that sharing the honor with her husband is one of the best parts about winning the award.

“In life, a good partner changes everything and we help each other in every way we can,” Murnane said. “Because we’re able to have very good, honest discussions, it makes us better scientists. It does require one to be patient and listen, and so we appreciate getting the awardtogether. Initially, people find that strange, because normally people think one person leads and another follows. But for us, we do it together and it means a lot that people recognize that.”

The professors were cited for the award for their innovations that have made high-intensity sources of X-rays practical and widely available for the study of multiple physical processes, including chemical reactions, at the quadrillionth-of-a-second time scale. Their research on laser light has impacted areas of science ranging from biology to astronomy.

“My primary interest is in developing and making us of new tabletop x-ray laser light sources,” Kapteyn said, in a statement. “During the past decade, we have developed a variety of techniques that allow us to phase-match and quasi-phase match the high order harmonic generation process. The result is a very useful tabletop coherent X-ray source that has applications in wide variety of scientific investigations.”

The Franklin Institute has presented awards for outstanding achievements in science, engineering, and industry since 1824. They have given awards to many revolutionary scientists, such as Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Claude Shannon, Jane Goodall, Nikola Tesla, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, the Wright Brothers, and Albert Einstein.

Receiving a Benjamin Franklin award puts scientists in the category with some of the most influential scientists of all time, something that Murnane believes is a huge honor.

“It’s mind boggling, because I don’t think of myself in that league,” Murnane said. “I love science because I love learning, and I love working with students just to see them transform from thinking ‘This is too hard, I can’t do it’ to suddenly, they know more about a topic than anyone inthe world.”

Kapteyn and Murnane credit their teamwork — with each other and their colleagues — for the breakthroughs they have made with lasers. Together, they talk physics nearly all the time and are happy to work long hours together, especially if they are on the verge of a breakthrough.

John Cumalat, Professor and Physics Department Chair believes that the couple won the award due to their major advancements thanks to their findings.

“They’re remarkable researchers,” Cumalat said. “Within the scientific field, this is a major award. They’re very rare and major long-time accomplishments. Henry and Margret continue to push the field; they’re great people and great scientists.”

Both scientists hope to continue to down their path of education and aim to help the next generation of scientists.

“I actually think of myself more of a teacher than a mad scientist; I think it’s just about helping the next generation,” Murnane said. “There’s a lot of exciting areas of science, we have fabulous collaborators, and our goals are just trying to finish some of those exciting projects and getting access to other folks using the technology that we helped develop.”

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