Nobel Prize for Physics awarded to quantum scientists

9 October 2012
By Rachael Fergusson
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 The 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics laureates Serge Haroche (L) and David Wineland.

The 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics laureates Serge Haroche (L) and David Wineland.

Two scientists from American and France have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Dr David Wineland and Professor Serge Haroche developed new methods for studying sub-atomic particles while preserving their quantum properties. These include the strange ability for atoms, electrons and photons to be "here" and "there" at the same time or to be "entangled" so they interact instantly no matter how far apart.

The work of the two scientists helped researchers take the first steps towards building super-fast quantum computers that could transform the world before the end of the century. In its citation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which hands out the Nobel Prizes, said the award was "for groundbreaking experimental methods that enable the measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems".

Dr Wineland is based at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado. Prof Haroche is at the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.

A seemingly impossible problem when studying quantum effects is that the very act of observation destroys them. Single sub-atomic particles lose their mysterious quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world.

The two scientists overcame this obstacle in opposite ways. Dr Wineland trapped electrically charged atoms and controlled them with light. Prof Haroche controlled and measured trapped photons by sending atoms through a trap.

British expert Professor Sir Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics, said: "Haroche and Wineland have made tremendous advances in our understanding of quantum entanglement, with beautiful experiments to show how atomic systems can be manipulated to exhibit the most extraordinary coherence properties.

"Their work demonstrates very fundamental behaviour of quantum systems under complete control, and underpins quantum technologies relevant to quantum computing and atomic clocks."

Professor Jim Al-Khalili, from the University of Surrey, said: "This year's Nobel Prize recognises some of the most incredible experimental tests of the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics.

"The two winners have for some years led teams in Boulder Colorado and in Paris that have carried out quite remarkable experiments that have demonstrated and confirmed phenomena such as quantum entanglement and decoherence. Until the last decade or two, some of these results were nothing more than ideas in science fiction or, at best, the wilder imaginations of quantum physicists.

"Wineland and Haroche and their teams have shown just how strange the quantum world really is and opened up the potential for new technologies undreamed of not so long ago."

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