Nobel awards shine light on bizarre world of quantum physics
THE PERPLEXING world of quantum physics has been celebrated through the awarding of the 2012 Nobel Prize for physics. Frenchman Serge Haroche and American David Wineland share the prize, worth less than €1 million this year because of a reduction imposed by granting body the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Prof Haroche (68), from France’s École Normale Supérieure, and Prof Wineland, (68), of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado separately developed ways to study the bizarre world of quantum mechanics.
Their discoveries have led to the world’s most accurate clocks and have also provided a means of developing a “quantum computer”, a device that easily could outperform today’s most powerful supercomputers.
“Perhaps the quantum computer will change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century,” said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences when making the award.
Most objects behave according to the classical laws of physics but these laws break down when you shrink down to the size of an atom or a single particle of light, called a photon. In this quantum mechanical world a single particle can be in two places at once and in different states. Particles can be “entangled” despite being kilometres apart.
The two men’s research area is known as quantum optics, given both use photons in their studies. Prof Wineland studied quantum behaviour by trapping charged atoms and then hitting them with photons. Prof Haroche trapped photons and measured them using atoms. Their great advance was that they were able to defy the assumption that measuring a quantum particle would irrevocably change it. They were able to study these particles without altering their original state.
“Wineland and Haroche and their teams have shown just how strange the quantum world really is and opened up the potential for new technologies undreamt of not so long ago,” said Prof Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Surrey. “Their work has given us a number of profound insights into the way the quantum world works,” said Prof Ian Walmsley, chair of experimental physics at Oxford University.
The Nobel foundation trimmed the value of the prize from 10 million kronor last year to eight million kronor, the lowest level since 1999, according to the foundation’s website. The cut was needed to avoid “undermining” capital, the foundation said.