Ashkin wins half of the prize for his development of "optical tweezers" which have allowed tiny organisms to be handled with light beams.
Canadian Donna Strickland, Gerard Mourou from France and American Arthur Ashkin will share the £998,662.97 [$998,662.97] prize.
Canada's Donna Strickland, of the University of Waterloo, becomes only the third woman to win a Nobel for physics, after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.
Strickland is the first woman in 55 years to be awarded the prize.
After winning the award, Donna Strickland said, "We need to celebrate women physicists because they're out there..."
The tweezers are "extremely important for measuring small forces on individual molecules, small objects, and this has been very interesting in biology, to understand how things like muscle tissue work, what are the molecule motors behind the muscle tissue", said David Haviland of the academy's Nobel committee.
Göran K. Hansson of the Nobel Foundation said part of the issue is that they often goes back in time to award prizes, a process which can take a lot of time to verify.
Reacting to her win, Dr Strickland, who is based at the University of Waterloo in Canada, said: "First of all you have to think it's insane, so that was my first thought".
Ashkin's work was based on the realization that the pressure of a beam of light could push microscopic objects and trap them in position.
Mourou, 74, and Strickland, then at the University of Rochester, invented chirped pulse amplification, a form of high-intensity laser, as they described in a 1985 paper that was Strickland's first scientific publication. These optical tweezers could then be used to control and direct individual cells, viruses, proteins, and even atoms. "I feel that women should start to get to be recognized more because for some reason not all men want to recognize us or not all people, but I think that's a minority". It quickly became a standard for subsequent high-intensity lasers finding many varied applications including in the life-changing corrective eye surgeries that are so common today.