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Physical Chemistry

Serge Haroche And David Wineland Share 2012 Nobel Prize In Physics

Awards: Observations of the quantum behavior of particles set the stage for quantum computing

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
October 11, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 42

Haroche
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Credit: AP
Photo of Serge Haroche of École Normale Supérieure in Paris, one of the winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics
Credit: AP

For their painstaking observations of the quantum behavior of trapped photons and ions, physics professor Serge Haroche of the Collège de France and École Normale Supérieure in Paris and David J. Wineland of the National Institute of Standards & Technology in Boulder, Colo., will share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

The work of Haroche and Wineland, both 68, has allowed scientists to begin forging ahead with the goal of developing quantum computers, members of the Nobel Committee said at a press conference in Stockholm on Oct. 9. Their work could also provide the basis for clocks 100 times more precise than current atomic clocks based on cesium atoms.

Wineland
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Credit: NIST
Photo of David J Wineland of the National Institute of Standards & Technology in Boulder, Colo, and winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Credit: NIST

Their studies have been a real-life exploration of the strange quantum behavior illustrated by the famous thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat, in which a feline exists in the superimposed states of being both alive and dead until human observation decides the animal’s fate. In reality, this superposition of states, and their subsequent collapse into a specific state, also known as decoherence, becomes relevant only at the quantum level of individual photons and molecules.

Haroche and Wineland got a close-up view of this quantum world with their experiments, which allowed the systems to exist long enough to be studied, said Per Delsing at the press conference. Delsing is a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden, and a Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences member.

Although the research of Haroche and Wineland shares similarities, they approached the problem differently. Wineland trapped beryllium ions in an electric field and probed their quantum states with a laser. Haroche trapped photons between two mirrors and used their effects on beams of atoms to infer information about the photons’ quantum states.

The superimposed quantum states in these systems could be used as quantum bits, or qubits, for a quantum computer. Unlike the bits in current computers, which store information in a series of ones and zeros, qubits can store both values at the same time.

The two men will share the $1.2 million prize. Haroche, who was reached by phone during the press conference, said he got the news while on a walk with his wife. “I was passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down,” he said.

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