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American, Frenchman win Nobel Prize for work in quantum physics

October 09, 2012|By Jon Bardin
  • David Wineland, pictured above receiving the National Medal of Science, is one of two winners of this year's Nobel Prize in physics.
David Wineland, pictured above receiving the National Medal of Science,… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

Two physicists who invented methods to observe and measure the behavior of individual particles have won the Nobel Prize in physics, the committee announced early Tuesday morning.

The winners, David J. Wineland of the United States and Serge Haroche of France, are experts in quantum physics. They independently developed ways to study individual particles of matter and light without destroying them, a feat that was previously thought to be impossible because quantum particles lose their special properties when they are interacted with.

The two physicists' work is similar and complementary. Wineland traps individual ions and studies them with carefully controlled beams of light; Haroche traps individual photons -- single particles of light -- and studies them by contacting them with individual ions. Both approaches allow individual particles to be studied with their quantum attributes intact.

One of these attributes is the ability to be in more than one state at a time. Classical physical laws, of course, tell us that a particle can only be in one place at a time -- the light switch is either on or off. But once single particles are isolated, they stop obeying the laws of classical physics and begin assuming quantum properties.

Originally, these quantum properties -- including the ability to be in more than one place at once -- could only be understood via mathematical formulas and theoretical thought experiments. But Wineland's and Haroche’s work allows for these states to be observed directly, in the laboratory, by controlling the experimental conditions with incredible precision.

As a result, they have been able to confirm experimentally the notion of a "superposition" -- the idea that a particle can be in more than one state at a time. This is where quantum computing comes in: While the smallest piece of information our current computers can handle is the bit -- a 0 or a 1 -- a quantum computer's basic unit is a qubit, or quantum bit, which can take on two values simultaneously.

If enacted successfully, the qubit would drastically increase the power and storage capacity of our computers. Wineland was the first to successfully perform qubit operations in the lab, showing that such computers are a technical possibility, though their construction would face enormous practical hurdles because it would require reproducing the carefully controlled laboratory environment on a larger scale.

You can read more about the winners here.

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