Wineland took pains to note that many people are working in the field. “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 said.
Asked how he will celebrate, Wineland said: “I’ll probably be pretty worn out by this evening. I’ll probably have a glass of wine and fall asleep.”
Christopher Monroe, who does similar work at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, said the awarding of the prize to the two men “is not a big surprise to me … It was sort of obvious that they were a package.”
Monroe said that thanks to the bizarre properties of the quantum world, when he and Wineland worked together in the 1990s, they were able to put a single atom in two places simultaneously.
At that time, it wasn’t clear that trapping single atoms could help pave the way to superfast quantum computers, he said. That whole field “just fell into our laps,’” Monroe said.
In an ordinary computer, information is represented in bits, each of which is either a zero or a one. But in a quantum computer, an individual particle can essentially represent a zero and a one at the same time. If scientists can make such particles work together, certain kinds of calculations could be done with blazing speed.
One example is the factoring, the process of discovering what numbers can be multiplied together to produce a given number. That has implications for breaking codes, Monroe said.
Quantum computers could radically change people’s lives in the way that classical computers did last century, but a full-scale quantum computer is still decades away, the Nobel judges said.
“The calculations would be incredibly much faster and exact and you would be able to use it for areas like metrology and for measuring the climate of the earth,” said Lars Bergstrom, the secretary of the prize committee.
The physics prize was the second of the 2012 Nobel Prizes to be announced, with the medicine award going Monday to stem cell pioneers John Gurdon of Britain and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka. Each award is worth 8 million kronor, or 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.
The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
AP science writer Malcolm Ritter in New York and AP writers Lori Hinnant in Paris and James Anderson and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.