A Frenchman and an American shared the Nobel Prize in physics yesterday for inventing methods to peer into the bizarre quantum world of ultra-tiny particles, work that could help in creating a new generation of super-fast computers.
Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland opened the door to new experiments in quantum physics in the 1990s by showing how to observe individual atoms and particles of light called photons while preserving their quantum properties.
Quantum physics, a field about a century old, explains a lot about nature but includes some weird-sounding behavior by individual, isolated particles. A particle resists our idea of either-or: it's not here or there, it's sort of both. It's not spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise, but a bit of both. It gets a definite location or spin only when it's measured.
Working separately, the two scientists, both 68, developed "ingenious laboratory methods" that allowed them to manage and measure and control fragile quantum states, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Wineland traps ions -- electrically charged atoms -- and measures them with light, while Haroche controls and measures photons.
"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."
Haroche is a professor at the Collège de France and Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Wineland is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, and the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Haroche said he was out walking with his wife in Paris when he got the call from the Nobel judges.
"I was in the street and passing a bench so I was able to sit down," Haroche told a news conference in Stockholm by telephone. "It's very overwhelming."
He said his work in the realm of quantum physics could ultimately lead to unimaginably fast computers. "You can do things which are prohibited by the laws of classical physics," he told The Associated Press. Haroche said quantum research could help make GPS navigating systems more accurate.
Wineland told the AP he was sleeping when his wife answered the phone at 3:30 a.m. Denver time.
His name had come up before, "But actually I hadn't heard anything this time around. It was certainly surprising and kind of overwhelming right now," he said. "I feel like I got a lot smarter overnight."
Wineland took pains to note that many people are working in the field. "It's a bit embarrassing to focus on just two individuals," he said.
Wineland told reporters he thinks that in the next decade or so, quantum computers will cross a threshold and be able to handle problems that are intractable on today's computers. "At this point I wouldn't recommend anybody buy stock in a quantum computing company . . . but we're optimistic," he said.
Each Nobel award is worth about $1.2 million. Only two women have won the physics prize since it was first awarded in 1901: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.