Two scientists who independently discovered how to manipulate individual atoms and particles of light have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their research into the weird world of quantum mechanics, where something can exist in two different states at the same time.
Frenchman Serge Haroche and American David Wineland have each helped to pioneer an esoteric field of physics that has already produced the most accurate clocks as well as promising to develop super-fast and intelligent machines known as quantum computers.
Dr Haroche, of the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, invented a way of trapping particles of light, called photons, by sending atoms through a microwave trap that keeps a photon reflecting off two mirrors for more for than a tenth of a second – equivalent to the photon travelling once around the Earth.
Dr Wineland, of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, used the opposite approach and devised a way of trapping electrically charged atoms or ions and controlling and measuring them with beams of laser light.
In both cases, the scientists were able to use their equipment to observe the highly unusual properties of single atoms and photons when the rules of classical physics break down and the weird laws of the quantum world operate.
“Through their ingenious laboratory methods they have managed to measure and control very fragile quantum states, enabling their field of research to take the very first steps toward building a new type of super-fast computer, based on quantum physics,” said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which governs the prize.
“These methods have also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time, with more than hundred-fold greater precision than present-day caesium clocks,” it said.
Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Surrey, said: “Until the last decade or two, some of these results were nothing more than ideas in science fiction or, at best, the wilder imaginations of quantum physicists. Wineland and Haroche have shown just how strange the quantum world really is and opened up the potential for new technologies undreamt of not so long ago.”
The weirdness of the quantum world, which operates at the levels of atoms and sub-atomic particles, is reflected in the thought experiment of Erwin Schrodinger, the Austrian physicist who won a Nobel prize in 1933. He proposed that particles can exist in two states or places at the same time, which could in theory mean that a cat trapped in a box with a radioactive poison and isolated from the rest of the world could be both dead or alive at the same time.