Bucksbaum spent his early childhood in Grinnell, a small farming and college community in south-central Iowa. He graduated as the class valedictorian from Washington High School in Cedar Rapids in 1971. He received a bachelor's degree in Physics from Harvard College in 1975. Bucksbaum attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, receiving his Ph.D. in 1980.
Bucksbaum joined the faculty of Stanford in 2005, with joint appointments in Physics, Applied Physics, and Photon Science. He was named to the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Chair in Natural Science at Stanford in 2009, and currently directs the PULSE Institute at Stanford and SLAC.
At Bell Laboratories he became interested in ultrafast and strong field laser-matter interactions. For a time he co-held the record for the shortest wavelength coherent radiation produced in the laboratory. He was one of the team that used similar methods to develop the first ultrafast angle-resolved vuv photoemission methods.
In 1985 he turned to the study of strong-field ionization of atoms. His early work on above threshold ionization of atoms established the role of ponderomotive forces in laser-electron interactions through studies of electron surfing in ultrafast laser pulses as well as the high-intensity Kapitsa–Dirac effect. He also discovered and explained the mechanism of bond softening in strong-field molecular dissociation.
His pioneering development of broadband coherent THz radiation (so-called "half-cycle pulses")
helped to advance the field of ultrafast THz spectroscopy. He has subsequently used ultrafast lasers to study problems in quantum sculpting, quantum information,
and coherent control of atomic and molecular dynamics.
He has served on the Editorial Board of Physical Review Letters, and was the founding editor of the American Institute of Physics Virtual Journal of Ultrafast Science.
At Stanford and SLAC, he has served as Chair of the Photon Science faculty and also Director of the Chemical Science Division. .
Controlling the shape of a quantum wavefunction, Weinacht T., J. Ahn & P. Bucksbaum, 1999. Nature, 397, 233-235.
Softening of the H2+ molecular bond in intense laser fields, Bucksbaum P., A. Zavriyev, H. Muller & D. Schumacher, 1990. Physical Review Letters,64, 1883-1886.
Information storage and retrieval through quantum phase, Ahn J., T. Weinacht & P. Bucksbaum, 2000. Science, 287, 463-465.
Clocking femtosecond x rays, Cavalieri A., D. Fritz, S. Lee, P. Bucksbaum, D. Reis, J. Rudati, D. Mills, P. Fuoss, G. Stephenson, C. Kao, D. Siddons, D. Lowney, A. Macphee, D. Weinstein, R. Falcone, R. Pahl, J. Als-Nielsen, C. Blome, S. Dusterer, R. Ischebeck, H. Schlarb, H. Schulte-Schrepping, T. Tschentscher, J. Schneider, O. Hignette, F. Sette, K. Sokolowski-Tinten, H. Chapman, R. Lee, T. Hansen, O. Synnergren, J. Larsson, S. Techert, J. Sheppard, J. Wark, M. Bergh, C. Caleman, G. Huldt, D. Van Der Spoel, N. Timneanu, J. Hajdu, R. Akre, E. Bong, P. Emma, P. Krejcik, J. Arthur, S. Brennan, K. Gaffney, A. Lindenberg, K. Luening & J. Hastings, 2005. Physical Review Letters94, 114801.