U.S., German Scientists Share Physics Nobel Prize

Alex Chadwick speaks with NPR science correspondent Joe Palca about the American and German scientists who will share this year's Nobel Prize for physics. They won the prestigious award for their work developing laser technology.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And science news now. This year's Nobel Prize in physics goes to two American and one German scientists for their work with light. Roy Glauber of Harvard University will get half of the $1.3 million prize for his theoretical work on what is called quantum optics. John Hall of the University of Colorado and Theodor Hansch will share the other half for their experimental work with lasers. Joining us is NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca.

Joe, more on this year's winners. What have you got?

JOE PALCA reporting:

Well, Roy Glauber is what's known as a theoretical physicist. He's one of those guys that uses chalk on a blackboard and comes home with his jacket all mussy. He's 80 years old and--some people expect to win a Nobel Prize, but Glauber apparently did not. He talked with David Kestenbaum this morning after the prize was announced, and here's how Glauber learned he was a winner.

Dr. ROY GLAUBER (Harvard University): Well, I was awakened in the black of night at 5:36 by a phone call. And a man with a decidedly Swedish accent was on the line telling me something I could scarcely believe, that I had won the Nobel Prize.

PALCA: In fact, he was not sure it wasn't a joke. And it was only when the phone kept ringing and people kept saying `congratulations, congratulations' that he was convinced he'd actually won.

CHADWICK: Well, how did he describe his prize-winning work, what he actually did?

PALCA: Well, what he said was, `It's very complicated and I don't think I can describe it very simply.' But just to give people a sense of what it is, it's talking about the mathematics behind understanding light as a particle.

CHADWICK: And...

PALCA: And that's as far as I'm going to go.

CHADWICK: OK. OK. We'll take that.

PALCA: OK.

CHADWICK: How about the work of the two experimenters? Could you explain that?

PALCA: Probably not, but I'll give a try. First let me tell you about them. John Hall is at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and also at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Ted Hansch is 63 and he's at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics outside of Munich. And what they're doing is they're taking this laser light--this coherent light and using it to make very precise measurements of things, because they know the quality of this light, they can understand things down to the very, very small levels like 10 to the -18th, you know, so tiny sizes of things. And they can even study the behavior of individual atoms.

CHADWICK: And what would be a practical application for this very, very precise measurement capacity?

PALCA: Well, I'm told that the National Football League is thinking about using this for the--you know, measuring the 10-yards for getting a first--no, I don't think that's it.

CHADWICK: Uh, no. No.

PALCA: Well, it's for things--these are all theoretical, but for making things like global positioning satellite navigation better, or if you want to send a rocket off to space, you want to be sure when you launch it's going in the right direction, because a small error on this end translates to a large error, you know, when you're going millions and billions of miles into space.

CHADWICK: OK. Great. Thank you. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, on the Nobels in physics given out today.

Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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