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A French-American Duo's Quantum Mechanics Research Won This Year's Nobel Prize for Physics

Quantum mechanics took the Nobel Prize for physics this year, as the duo of Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the U.S. were awarded this morning for a body of work that in part showed how to observe individual quantum particles.
October 9, 2012, 4:44pm
Above: David Wineland, via Flickr

Quantum mechanics took the Nobel Prize for physics this year, as the duo of Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the U.S. were awarded this morning for a body of work that in part showed how to observe individual quantum particles.

Quantum mechanics seeks to describe the curious properties of quantum particles, which, in extremely broad terms, have been observed to exist in multiple states or locations at once. The methods of those observations are the hard part: quantum particles exist in isolation, which means that direct observation is likely to affect their state. But the promise of quantum physics is huge, whether it’s in unhackable communication, the structure of our DNA, or, as is most talked about, quantum computing. (Quick aside: Quantum computers promise super fast number crunching, like prime factoring, but wouldn’t necessarily be any faster at, say, playing Sim City.)

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Haroche and Wineland were both awarded the prize for separately developing “methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical nature, in ways that were previously thought unattainable,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. Quantum particles only exist when there is no other matter to affect them, which makes their manipulation an extremely difficult task. Figuring out ways to work with quantum particles without affecting their state is particularly mindblowing, as outlined by a great explainer on the Nobel site.

While their methods are similar, the two researchers approached their tasks from opposite angles. Wineland traps ions (atoms with an electrical charge), and controls and measures them with photons, or light particles. Haroche, on the other hand, controls and measures photons themselves, by sending ions through a trap.

As Wineland told the AP, quantum physics allows for things that are prohibited by the laws of classical physics. Through their combined work, Haroche and Wineland have really opened up the field of quantum physics, which is hoped to have big payoffs. “Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of superfast computer based on quantum physics,” the academy said. “The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time.”

Wineland, whose wife first learned he’d won the prize via a 3:30 AM phone call this morning in Denver, was particularly humble. “First of all, a lot of people have been working on advanced computers and atomic clocks for a long time. It’s a bit embarrassing to focus on just two individuals,” he told the AP. And how does he plan to celebrate such a massive achievement? “I’ll probably be pretty worn out by this evening," he said. "I’ll probably have a glass of wine and fall asleep.”

Oh, and if you’re wondering why the Higgs boson research at CERN didn’t win, it was never going to happen. The CERN research is too new. Even if it was ironclad, which it isn’t, the Nobel prize judges have always waited to ensure that an honoree’s body of work is reviewed, confirmed, and worthy of the prize.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.