The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics, Explained

This hot-off-the-press video from the science-explainer folks at Sixty Symbols does a great job of detailing the science of the work by Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland, which won them 2012 Nobel Prize in physics today. Their experiments on quantum particles have already resulted in ultra-precise clocks and may one day help lead to computers that can work faster than those in use today.

The video also shows how expectations were that the prize might go to the teams at the Large Hadron Collier for the discovery of what they called a “Higgs-like boson” — a particle that resembles the long sought-after Higgs.

But, back to the winners: Haroche and Wineland showed in the 1990s how to observe individual particles while preserving their bizarre quantum properties, something that scientists had struggled to do before. As the Nobel Prize committee states, “The Nobel Laureates have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them.”

Read more about their work at the Nobel website.

3 Replies to “The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics, Explained”

  1. Of course the gold standard is to combine these two. A high-Q cavity that holds a photon between two mirrors could also have a trapped atom or ion. If the atom as in its outer electron shell a possible transition between two states with energy E and E’ one could them observe the photon becoming absorbed by the atom if the photon has energy ? = ?? = E’ – E, for ? = 2?? and ? the frequency of light. If the atom is in the lower energy E the photon has some quantum probability of absorbing the photon and having its
    energy level raised to E’. Similarly of course there is a quantum amplitude (amplitude squared = probability) then for the atom to emit a photon with energy ? = ?? = E’ – E, and relax back to the lower energy state E. This will then oscillate.


  2. The Nobel Prize in Physics 2012 was awarded jointly to Serge
    Haroche and David J. Wineland “for ground-breaking experimental methods
    that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems”

    Their ground-breaking methods
    have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards
    building a new type of super fast 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.

    Quantum-optics pioneer Alain
    Aspect of Laboratoire Charles Fabry in Paris
    told “Observing, manipulating and controlling
    individual quantum systems has been a major breakthrough of the last few
    decades. Schrödinger doubted that it might ever be possible, but this year’s
    laureates have done it. Cavity quantum electrodynamics (CQED) – whereby the
    properties of an atom are controlled by placing it in an optical or microwave
    cavity. Haroche focused on microwave experiments and turned the technique on
    its head – using CQED to control the properties of individual photons. In a
    series of ground-breaking experiments, Haroche used CQED to realize
    Schrödinger’s famous cat experiment in which a system is in a superposition of
    two very different quantum states until a measurement is made on the system.
    Such states are extremely fragile, and the techniques developed to create and
    measure CQED states are now being applied to the development of quantum
    computers. Wineland bagged his half of the Nobel for his ground-breaking work
    on the quantum control of ions. One of his many achievements was the creation
    and transfer of a single ion in a Schrödinger’s cat state using trapping
    techniques developed at NIST. Ion traps are created in ultrahigh vacuum using
    carefully controlled electric fields and a trap can hold just one ion or
    several in a row.

    Rainer Blatt of the University of Innsbruck
    in Austria
    does experiments in both CQED and ion trapping, and he told
    that the Nobel committee chose well in awarding the prize to Haroche and
    Wineland. Blatt points out that the pair developed similar quantum-control
    techniques for use on different physical systems – techniques that have laid
    the groundwork for many of today’s nascent quantum-information systems.

    Blatt cites Wineland’s 2008
    development of “quantum-logic spectroscopy” – which allows a single
    ion to be used as an optical clock – as an important application of the control
    techniques, along with the creation in 2009 of a small-scale device that
    performs all the functions required in large-scale ion-based quantum processing.
    Haroche’s work provides a framework for controlling the interaction between a
    single atom and a single photon – something that Blatt says is currently being
    used to develop ways of exchanging quantum information between atoms and
    photons. This could allow physicists to create quantum computers in which data
    are stored in stationary quantum bits (qubits) based on atoms, which are
    relatively stable over long periods of time. Data could then be transmitted
    between atoms using photons, which can preserve their quantum information while
    travelling relatively large distances..

    Light and matter, when the
    minuscule scales of single particles are reached, behave in surprising ways in
    a part of physics known as quantum mechanics. Working with light and matter on
    this level would have been unthinkable before the pair developed solutions to
    pick, manipulate and measure photons and ions individually, allowing an insight
    into a microscopic world that was once just the province of scientific theory.

    Their work has implications for
    light-based clocks far more precise than the atomic clocks at the heart of the
    world’s business systems, and quantum computing, which may – or may not – revolutionise
    desktop computing as we know i

    But for physicists, the import of
    the pair’s techniques is outlined in a
    layman’s summary on the Nobel site: they preserve the delicate quantum
    mechanical states of the photons and ions – states that theorists had for
    decades hoped to measure in the laboratory, putting the ideas of quantum
    mechanics on a solid experimental footing.

    Those include the slippery
    quantum mechanical ideas of “entanglement” – the seemingly ethereal
    connection between two distant particles that underpins much work on the
    “uncrackable codes” of quantum cryptography – and of
    “decoherence”, in which the quantum nature of a particle slowly slips
    away through its interactions with other matter.

    Prof Sir Peter Knight of the UK’s Institute
    of Physics, said:
    “Haroche and Wineland have made tremendous advances in our understanding
    of quantum entanglement, with beautiful experiments to show how atomic systems
    can be manipulated to exhibit the most extraordinary coherence

    Humans think though development
    of a picture of the minds eye. So even though spin, particle are just names
    that have nothing to what the math equations are talking about. By simply
    naming – gives people the idea that these ‘things’ that the math equations are
    referring to actually do have spin, and mass – which they don’t.

    “The term ‘particle’ survives
    in modern physics, but very little of its classical meaning remains. A particle
    can now best be defined as the conceptual carrier of a set of variates. . . It
    is also conceived as the occupant of a state defined by the same state of
    variates. . .It might seem desirable to distinguish the ‘mathematical fictions’
    from ‘actual particles’; but it is difficult to find any logical basis for such
    a distinction. ‘Discovering’ a particle mean observing certain effects which
    are accepted as proof of its existence.”

    hat’s why the names mislead the
    ordinary person on the street with misconceptions. The odd names just made
    matters worse. Quarks are known as flavors: up, down, charm, strange, top, and
    bottom. Doesn’t help to understand it – does it? That because we are animals
    that instinctively used familiar ideas to graft unknown and new idea upon them,
    inherently distorting with our brain’s lenses.

    One of the earliest proposed
    possibilities for FTL travel involved a hypothetical particle called a tachyon,
    capable of tunnelling past the speed of light barrier. This turned out to be
    more of a mathematical artifact rather than an actual physical particle.”

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