STOCKHOLM — A French-American duo shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for experiments on quantum particles that have already resulted in ultra-precise clocks and may one day help lead to computers many times faster than those in use today.
Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland showed in the 1990s how to observe individual particles while preserving their bizarre quantum properties, something that scientists had struggled to do before.
A quantum particle is one that is isolated from everything else. In this situation, an atom or electron or photon takes on strange properties. It can be in two places at once, for example. It behaves in some ways like a wave. But these properties are instantly changed when it interacts with something else, such as when somebody observes it.
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.
“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 College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Wineland is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, and the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado.
Haroche said he was out walking with his wife 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 also said quantum research could help make GPS navigating systems more accurate.
Wineland told AP he was sleeping when his wife answered the phone at 3:30 a.m. local time in Denver. He was utterly shocked even though 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. “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.