French And American Share Nobel Physics Prize

Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the United States have been honored for their work on the interaction between life and matter — in particular, the "fundamental interactions between light particles and matter."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics will be shared by two scientists who've been working in an eerie field where matter and light interact. One is Serge Haroche, a Frenchman. The other David Wineland, an American from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and also of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Here's some of the Nobel Prize announcement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the academy citation runs for groundbreaking experimental methods that enable measures and manipulation of individual quantum systems.

INSKEEP: Manipulation of individual quantum systems. So there you go, fully explained. Maybe you're wondering the same thing that I'm wondering right now, which we're going to ask NPR's Richard Harris here in our studios.

Richard, what is that?

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Well, it's a little complicated, Steve, as the jargon implies. But let me help. See if I can walk you through it a little bit. Both scientists, each individually, figured out how to directly observe and manipulate subatomic particles without destroying them. Now, that may not sound like much, but usually when you get to the weird world of quantum mechanics, that's actually very, very hard to do.

And each of them took a different approach. I'll start with the Frenchman, Serge Haroche, at the College de France in Paris. What he did was he trapped single photons - photons are particles of light.

INSKEEP: Really, really small.

HARRIS: Really small. Put them between two mirrors, let them bounce back and forth between the two mirrors. So trapping the light wasn't that big of a trick, I guess. But then he was able to study those photons without destroying them. And when you think about it, when you see a photon - a particle of light - when it enters your eye, the light doesn't come out again, right. It's gone. So when you observe a photon you'd normally think it gets destroyed. But he figured out a way, using, injecting atoms into this weird mirror trap in order to actually study that photon without destroying it.

INSKEEP: Which means that, what? You can figure out more about how it behaves?

HARRIS: Absolutely. You can observe, you can measure it, you can actually - yeah, see, understand better what it's about.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's the Frenchman. And there's the American who's part of this.

HARRIS: Yes. And that would be David Wineland, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology; which is a federal laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. This is the second Nobel Prize they've won, by the way, in that little laboratory. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The National Institute of Standards and Technology has actually won three Nobels.] He's also at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

But Wineland made the same kind of direct observations, but he did it instead of trapping light, he trapped atoms and then he used light to sort of tweak the atoms trapped in this very cool place. And again, he was able to observe those atoms without mucking them up, which is, again, another one of these coups in subatomic physics.

INSKEEP: OK. So this is all about learning, in effect, getting in a position to understand a little better how subatomic particles behave. Then you have to ask what are the practical effects of what scientists are able to learn using the techniques that these gentlemen developed.

HARRIS: Yeah. Well - if we have a second, I would like to remind you about a famous thought experiment conducted in the 1930s, called Schrodinger's cat. I don't know if you've heard of this. But the idea was you put a cat in a box where you can't see it. And there's a vial of poison in with the cat. It has a 50-50 chance of bursting open sometime during the duration of the experiment.

Now, physicists would argue that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time while it's in the box. And it's only one or the other when you open the box to look at it. It's a weird way. But...

INSKEEP: Because the idea is you don't know whether the cat is alive or dead. So you have to assume both.

HARRIS: You don't know. And not only you - and not only you don't know. But the physicists argue you can't tell the difference. So from the standpoint of physicists it's both at the same time. It's super-positioned is what they call it - alive and dead at the same time.

And the idea is some of this weird physics that they're doing will allow them to super-position atoms or atomic particles. And if you can do that you can make quantum computers. These are incredibly fast, incredibly more powerful computers than we have today. But they require this weird super-position. And these guys have taken a step toward being able to do that.

INSKEEP: This weird super-position of being alive or dead at the same time. Is that what you're saying?

HARRIS: Yeah. Or an atom in two states at the same time.

INSKEEP: OK. And just a reminder, no cats were harmed in Richard Harris's report on the Nobel Prize for Physics this morning.

HARRIS: Or in their experiment.

INSKEEP: OK. Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That is NPR's Richard Harris on the two winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

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Correction Oct. 11, 2012

We incorrectly say that the National Institute of Standards and Technology lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has over time won two Nobel prizes. The NIST lab in Colorado has actually won three Nobels.

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