Laser Work Earns Trio Nobel Prize for Physics Two Americans and a German share the prize for work that used light to make some of the most precise measurements ever performed. Engineers have used the observations of Roy Glauber, John Hall and Theodor Haensch to improve lasers, Global Positioning System technology and other instruments.
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Laser Work Earns Trio Nobel Prize for Physics

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Laser Work Earns Trio Nobel Prize for Physics

Laser Work Earns Trio Nobel Prize for Physics

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to three scientists for their work on light. Roy Glauber, John Hall and Theodore Hansch will share the $1.3 million prize. NPR's science correspondent David Kestenbaum joins me now in the studio. Good morning.


Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's find out, what did these guys do?

KESTENBAUM: John Hall and Theodore Hansch are getting award for some pretty amazing experimental work they did. They helped advance a technique with lasers that allows for very, very precise measurements, something like up to 15 digits. That's one part in a quadrillion. The other half of the award is going to Roy Glauber, who did some theoretical work in a related area on how matter and light interact.

MONTAGNE: What did exactly did John Hall and Theodore Hansch measure so precisely?

KESTENBAUM: They're basically measuring the internal structure of atoms. And that sounds sort of obscure, but it allows scientists to do all kinds of interesting things, like look and see what the laws of physics are changing over time or compare the structure of atoms that are made of matter and atoms that are made of antimatter. Now it's been hard to make atoms of antimatter, but they hope to do it and trap it and then be able to compare the two and see if the laws of physics are the same for both of them. They're basically probing the orbits of electrons that go around the nucleus and that's the internal structure that they look at.

MONTAGNE: And can you help us out here on how does one do that?

KESTENBAUM: Well, lasers emit a very certain particular color of light and atoms also absorb particular colors of light. So that's how they do it. They look at the frequency of light that the atoms emit and absorb.

MONTAGNE: And the other half of the prize, as you said, worked on optical theory?

KESTENBAUM: Roy Glauber did the theoretical work in this related area. It's called the quantum theory of optical coherence. And he admits it's very technical. I spoke with him for a minutes earlier this morning, and he said there were some ah-ha moments when he was doing it, but they would be very hard to explain. Basically he was looking at the fundamental difference between light that comes from a laser, which is of a very particular color, and light from a light bulb where you get all different frequencies. He says there's no particular application for it right now, but maybe there will be in the future.

MONTAGNE: What--when you spoke with Roy Glauber, was he still in shock? Want to tell us about these winners?

KESTENBAUM: He was still in his pajamas...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: ...and hadn't had coffee but the neighbors were bringing some over. He is--Glauber is 80 years and he got PhD in physics from Harvard and he's still at Harvard now--he's a professor. John Hall is 71. He was born in Colorado and he's still in Colorado now at the--he's at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and he's also a fellow at the University of Colorado. Theodore Hansch is 63. He's a German citizen at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Munich, Germany. Some of this work goes back to the '60s, but these guys have all been very, very active. And it's an incredibly productive area. And they're still apparently--they're all good friends.

MONTAGNE: So at this point we're talking or mid or sort of later careers. How surprised would they have been to get the Nobel?

KESTENBAUM: There are some people who are expecting to get the Nobel Prize and there are definitely people who angle for it their whole lives, but when I talked to Roy Glauber this morning, he was sort of beside himself and said he couldn't believe it.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, David.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's science David Kestenbaum. The Nobel Prize in physics was warded today to Americans John Hall and Roy Glauber and German Theodore Hansch for their work on the study of optics.

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