Nobel Prize in physics awarded for work in quantum optics

Two researchers independently have developed ways to measure and manipulate individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical nature.

The Noble Prize in Physics was awarded to two researchers for mastering particles. Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Two researchers received the Nobel Prize in physics today for their work in manipulating single particles of light or matter -- advancements that could help build a new type of super-fast computer based on quantum physics.

Serge Haroche of France and David J. Wineland of the United States independently developed methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical nature. The Nobel citation said such advancements, which allow researchers to directly observe individual quantum particles without destroying them, were previously thought unattainable.

"For single particles of light or matter the laws of classical physics cease to apply and quantum physics takes over," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. "But single particles are not easily isolated from their surrounding environment and they lose their mysterious quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world. Thus many seemingly bizarre phenomena predicted by quantum physics could not be directly observed, and researchers could only carry out thought experiments that might in principle manifest these bizarre phenomena."

Both researchers developed methods that allow them to examine, control, and count the particles.

Harnessing the laws of quantum mechanics -- which deals with the behavior of atoms, photons, electrons, and other particles -- would mean the development of computers much faster and more powerful than today's supercomputers. It's particularly important for encryption and secure communications, but it could be used to enable new types of simulations or, in the shorter term, sophisticated measurement devices, such as magnetic resonance imaging.

Work in quantum optics, like the research of Haroche and Wineland, could have applications in quantum computing and other areas. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that the field, which studies the fundamental interaction between light and matter, has enabled the "very first steps" toward building a new supercomputer based on quantum physics. And it has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time.

Wineland's research allows him to trap electrically charged atoms, or ions, controlling and measuring them with light, or photons.

Haroche takes the opposite approach, controlling and measuring trapped photons by sending atoms through a trap.

Haroche works at the College de France and the Ecole Normale Superieure, and Wineland works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado in Boulder.