Following the announcement of the prize for medicine or physiology yesterday, the Nobel committee today announced the prestigious award for physics winners, with Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the U.S. picking up the prize for their contributions to quantum physics.
The Nobel committee announced today the $1.2 million prize for the two physicists, citing their “ground-breaking experimental methods that enabled measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems."
The physicists' work relate largely to a field known as "quantum optics," which deals with physics on the most fundamental level, using single ions and photons, the basic units respectively of light and matter. While physics may deal with light and matter on a physical scale, quantum physics, and in this case quantum optics, pares down the two to their most basic levels, dealing with them on the quantum level. The idea of working with light and matter on the most fundamental level may sound daunting, and though it may be, it was the combined work of Haroche and Wineland that helped pave the way for this discipline and open the doors on a whole new breed of potential quantum technology.
Working on the quantum level, the biggest challenge that scientists faced was the perishable nature of the ions and photons, making the study and research of them infinitely harder. But Haroche and Wineland’s work helped to maintain the "quantum mechanical states" of these particles. A Nobel statement says that the pair “opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum systems without destroying them.”
Indeed, while maintaining the quantum states, the pair also devised systems to manipulate and measure them, opening up the quantum realm to science.
Both Haroche and Wineland were caught unawares when they heard the news of them winning the Nobel Prize for Physics. Haroce told reporters that he had just gotten word 20 minutes before and that "I was lucky—I was in the street and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately. I was walking with my wife going back home and when I saw the ... Swedish code, I realized it was real and it's, you know, really overwhelming."
Wineland was contacted at home, where he was roused from sleep. He told the Nobel website in a telephone interview that the announcement was a “wonderful surprise, of course. Yes, just amazing, sure.”
It is hoped that Haroche and Wineland’s work will pave the way for new quantum computers and clocks.