Science Talk

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics

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

Wineland co-authored an August, 2008, Scientific American article explaining his work, titled Quantum Computing with Ions.

Philip Yam wrote a review article that includes coverage of this material in the June, 1997, Scientific American, titled Bringing Schrödinger's Cat to Life, available here text-only and in full in our digital archive.

Podcast Transcription

Steve:       Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk. I am Steve Mirsky.

Bergström: This year's Nobel Prize in Physics is about interaction between light and matter.

Steve:       Physics Nobel committee member Lars Bergström made the announcement just after 5:45 A.M. Eastern time.

Bergström:         The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics to Serge Haroche at Collège de France and Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, France, and David J. Wineland at National Institute of Standards and Technology and University of Colorado, Boulder, U.S.A. And the academy citation runs: For groundbreaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.

Steve:       The work has enabled the entire field to experimentally examine quantum states, the weird behavior of matter on subatomic scales that were formally only open to analysis theoretically. The most obvious applications of the measurement and manipulation of quantum systems are atomic clocks of unprecedented accuracy and the eventual advent of quantum computers. Just after the announcement, physics Nobel Committee member Per Delsing explained to a reporter that this work enables researchers…

Delsing:     To take one of the very first steps to show that you can do quantum operations on a quantum system, that's the first step towards a quantum computer.

Reporter: What would the quantum computer do that other computers cannot?

Delsing:     So, there are certain algorithms that a quantum computer could do much, much faster than an ordinary computer, and the prime example is to factor large numbers into primes. That would be extremely much faster with a quantum computer. But future will tell, I'm sure there will be also a number of other things that can be useful on a quantum computer.

Reporter: So why don't we have it here now?

Delsing:     Oh, because this is very hard to do, and you see today we have awarded a Nobel to these two guys who have taken the first steps to have control on a single system; but to make a quantum computer you would have to have the same amount of control on very many particles at the same time.

Reporter: So it will not come next year as a Nobel Prize?

Delsing:     I can almost promise that.

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