A Frenchman and an American shared the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for inventing methods to peer into the bizarre quantum world of ultra-tiny particles, work that could help in creating a new generation of super-fast computers.
Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland opened the door to new experiments in quantum physics in the 1990s by showing how to observe individual atoms and particles of light called photons while preserving their quantum properties.
Quantum physics, a field about a century old, explains a lot about nature but includes some weird-sounding behavior by individual, isolated particles. A particle resists our idea of either-or: it's not here or there, it's sort of both. It's not spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise, but a bit of both. It gets a definite location or spin only when it's measured.
Working separately, the two scientists, both 68, developed "ingenious laboratory methods" that allowed them to manage and measure and control fragile quantum states, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Wineland traps ions — electrically charged atoms — and measures them with light, while Haroche controls and measures photons.
"Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of superfast computer based on quantum physics," the academy said. "The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time."
Haroche is a professor at the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Wineland is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, and the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Haroche said he was out walking with his wife in Paris when he got the call from the Nobel judges.
"I was in the street and passing a bench so I was able to sit down," Haroche told a news conference in Stockholm by telephone. "It's very overwhelming."
He said his work in the realm of quantum physics could ultimately lead to unimaginably fast computers. "You can do things which are prohibited by the laws of classical physics," he told The Associated Press.
Haroche also said quantum research could help make GPS navigating systems more accurate.
Wineland told the AP he was sleeping when his wife answered the phone at 3:30 a.m. local time in Denver. He was utterly shocked even though his name had come up before.
"But actually I hadn't heard anything this time around. It was certainly surprising and kind of overwhelming right now," he said. "I feel like I got a lot smarter overnight."
Asked how he will celebrate, Wineland said: "I'll probably be pretty worn out by this evening. I'll probably have a glass of wine and fall asleep."
Wineland took pains to note that many people are working in the field. "First of all, a lot of people have been working on advanced computers and atomic clocks for a long time. It's a bit embarrassing to focus on just two individuals," he said.
Wineland told reporters that he thinks that in the next decade or so, quantum computers will cross a threshold and be able to handle problems that are intractable on today's computers.
"At this point I wouldn't recommend anybody buy stock in a quantum computing company ... but we're optimistic," he said.
The Nobel judges said quantum computers could radically change people's lives in the way that classical computers did last century, but a full-scale quantum computer is still decades away.
"The calculations would be incredibly much faster and exact and you would be able to use it for areas like ... measuring the climate of the earth," said Lars Bergstrom, the secretary of the prize committee.
Christopher Monroe, who does similar work at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, said the awarding of the prize to the two men "is not a big surprise to me. ... It was sort of obvious that they were a package."
Monroe said that thanks to the bizarre properties of the quantum world, when he and Wineland worked together in the 1990s, they were able to put a single atom in two places simultaneously.
At that time, it wasn't clear that trapping single atoms could help pave the way to superfast quantum computers, he said. That whole field "just fell into our laps."
In an ordinary computer, information is represented in bits, each of which is either a zero or a one. But in a quantum computer, an individual particle can essentially represent a zero and a one at the same time. If scientists can make such particles work together, certain kinds of calculations could be done with blazing speed.
One example is factoring, the process of discovering what numbers can be multiplied together to produce a given number. That has implications for breaking codes, Monroe said.
The physics prize was the second of the 2012 Nobel Prizes to be announced, with the medicine award going Monday to stem cell pioneers John Gurdon of Britain and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka. Each award is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.2 million.
Only two women have won the physics prize since it was first awarded in 1901: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.
The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.