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Nobel Prize in physics recognizes quantum-world experiments

STOCKHOLM – Two independent but related quantum optics methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum mechanical nature have been recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics.

Serge Haroche of the Collège de France and Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and David Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder will share the $1.2 million (SEK 8 million) prize.


Serge Haroche


Although the research was developed separately over many years by teams in the US and France, the work of the winners is synergistic, the academy said.

“I use atoms to study photons, and he uses photons to study atoms,” Haroche said in a phone interview with Nobelprize.org of his and Wineland’s work. “He’s a friend, and I admire his work very much. We have been in contact with each other for many, many years. I am very glad to share this prize with him.”

The field of quantum optics, which deals with the interaction between light and matter, has seen considerable progress since the mid-1980s. Because single particles are not easily isolated from their surrounding environment and lose their mysterious quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world, it was thought that direct observation could not be attained; researchers could only carry out “thought experiments” that might, in principle, manifest the bizarre phenomena.

Discoveries based on these experiments could eventually lead to the development of superfast quantum computers and could be used to make optical clocks that are at least 100 times more accurate than current-day cesium clocks.


David Wineland


“I think most of us feel that even though it is a long ways off before we can realize such a computer . . . it will eventually happen,” Wineland told Nobelprize.org in a phone interview. “It’s primarily a matter of controlling these systems better and better.”

Haroche and his wife were out walking when he received the call notifying him of the award.

“I was ... getting ready to get back home,” Haroche said. “My first thought was amazement, you know. I think I had the thought even before I [answered] the phone because I saw the code 46 of Sweden. I knew that the prize was being given today.”

Wineland, in Colorado, was awakened by the phone call from the Nobel committee. “We probably won’t go back to sleep for a while,” he said. “It’s a wonderful surprise, of course, and just amazing.”

When asked how the award would affect his future work, Wineland told Photonics Spectra that “the recognition will increase our credibility, which can never hurt. But I don’t think it will change my personal approach at all.”


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