Two Physicists Win Nobel Prize For Physics in 2012
October 10, 2012

Two Physicists Win Nobel Prize For Physics in 2012

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Two physicists, one from the United States and one from France, were revealed on Tuesday October 9, 2012 as winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The physicists were recognized for their work in developing techniques to study the relationships of light and matter, and how this relationship could lead to new super fast computers and the most “precise” clocks ever built, according to the Nobel Prize committee in Norway.

The two winners are: Serge Haroche, of the College de France and the École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, France and David Wineland, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado; Haroche and Wineland will share the $1.2 million prize being awarded on December 10, 2012 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Both Wineland and Haroche work in the field of quantum optics, approaching the same principles from two distinctly different directions. Wineland uses light particles to measure the properties of matter, while Haroche focuses on tracking light particles through the use of atoms.

Their work, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, has enabled scientists to make direct observations of some of the most bizarre effects predicted by the quantum laws that prevail in the microcosm. Their work could also eventually lead to the development of super fast quantum computers and precisely accurate atomic clocks.

A quantum computer, if ever invented, could process an astronomically higher number of bits of information than even the fastest of today´s supercomputer, the academy surmises. Compared to a classic computer, which can hold only one value at a time, a quantum version “could hold two to the 300th power values simultaneously, more than the number of atoms in the universe,” according to a background document published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

If such a computer could ever be built, it would radically change the way we view computers and could impact our whole lives on a scale not ever seen before. But currently, quantum computers are only theoretical behemoths, and there are no plans to build one as of yet, said the academy, who note that the development of “such a quantum computer is an enormous practical challenge.”

The news of the winners surprised some, who expected the physics award to go to scientists involved in the discovery of the Higgs boson, or “God” particle, which has been considered one of the top scientific achievements of the past 50 years.

For Wineland´s inclusion in the Prize, he and his colleagues have focused on the relationships between light and matter, trapping charged beryllium atoms in the electric field and cooling them with specially tuned lasers, slowing them down to a crawl, which is another way of saying they are very cold.

Because cold atoms vibrate and emit light at very precise frequencies, Wineland and his colleagues have used their trapped ions to make the world´s most accurate clocks. These beryllium-based clocks can operate so precisely that they would only lose 5 seconds of the course of 13.7 billion years.

For Haroche´s part, he was honored for his work in trapping photons--the particles that transmit light--in a mirrored cavity whose walls are so finely polished that one photon will bounce back and forth for a tenth of a second (an eternity in atomic physics) before leaking out or being absorbed. He then sends in a single atom, as a spy, to interact with the light.

Normally to detect light is to destroy it, photons are absorbed in our retinas or in the C.C.D. chips in our cameras. But in one case by observing subtle effects of the light on the atoms, he and his colleagues could count the photons “as one would do with marbles in a box,” as he put it on his website without destroying them.

Haroche, who was walking with his wife when he received the news, said he had to find a bench and sit down. “It was real,” he said in a news conference by telephone.

The Nobel Prize committee has handed out the Nobel Prize in Physics 105 times since 1901. The youngest recipient was Lawrence Bragg, who won in 1915 at the age of 25. Bragg is not only the youngest physics laureate; he is also the youngest laureate in any Nobel Prize area.

The oldest physics laureate was Raymond Davis Jr., who was 88 years old when he was awarded the prize in 2002. John Bardeen was the only physicist to receive the prize twice -- for work in semiconductors and superconductivity.